Review by DDJ
"This series has died of dysentery."
Review in Brief
Game: Guide your wagon to Oregon along the Oregon Trail, buying supplies and avoiding obstacles along the way.
Good: Oddly pleasant, at times at least.
Bad: Boring gameplay; poor graphics and touchscreen usage; odd content structure; confusing interaction; lack of all the things that made Oregon Trail fun.
Verdict: It may be low-budget, but that doesn't excuse terrible game design.
Recommendation: Nope. Don't bother.
"This series has died of dysentery."
I picked up Oregon Trail for the 3DS primarily for nostalgia's sake. I didn't really know what to expect since I haven't played an Oregon Trail game since I was in elementary school, but with the dearth of new releases in January and with my own need for a portable game, I figured it couldn't hurt.
I didn't have high expectations for the game, and yet, my low expectations weren't met at all. I wasn't expecting a deep game, or a complex game, or a game that would keep me playing for hours on end. All I was really hoping for was a game with the same kind of simple charm that Oregon Trail had way back when. It could be simple and shallow so long as it was still well-designed for whatever it was. Heck, I would've been satisfied with a near-direct port of that game with nothing but updated graphics; keep the menu-driven structure, keep the simplistic gameplay, just give us a fun little blast from the past.
Unfortunately, it let me down. It's just not a very enjoyable game. It suffers from some pretty fundamental design flaws in the graphics, interaction, and content departments. It makes some really strange decisions with regards to its overall structure. It tries to do too much, in a way, but what it tries to do is also misguided. It has some pleasant moments, but overall, it's just pretty bad. For that reason, I'm going to invert my usual review structure and talk about the bad parts first before briefly touching on the fleeting positive bits of the game.
At its core, the classic Oregon Trail is still there; your goal is to get to Oregon by wagon on the Oregon trail, passing through rivers, mountainous areas, deserts, and passes along the way. You buy items like food, wagon parts, clothes, and bullets; you hunt, fish, forage for berries, and pan for gold; you make trades with the people you meet along the way; and you take care of your family members when they get sick.
Unlike the older games, you actually drive your wagon around, steering around obstacles and collecting little power-ups that heal your oxen or repair your wagon. Along the way, you'll be interrupted by developments with your family and given the chance to heal them. You'll also come across people and places to interact with along the side of the road. You win by reaching Oregon before Winter and lose by failing to. Even if you win, your real goal is to score a lot of points by arriving early, in good shape, with lots of supplies.
There are problems all over Oregon Trail. From the gameplay to the graphics to the content, there's just very little to like about the game. It's not just that it's non-descript, mundane, or boring, but there are actual significant faults in nearly every domain.
To start off with, and to put it rather bluntly, the game is just plain boring. 95% of the gameplay consists of steering your wagon around obstacles while trying to pick up little powerups on the ground that heal your oxen or repair your wagon. Hitting obstacles will, in turn, damage your wagon and hurt your oxen. Unfortunately, the wagon moves moderately fast at its highest speed, the turning isn't responsive (which I guess is realistic for a team of oxen, but it still isn't fun), the turn radius is terrible, and the trail is basically just a straight line. The only way I can describe it is imagine playing Mario Kart 64 at 1/10th speed on Kalimari Desert.
You're no longer just monitoring your progress and reacting accordingly by hunting, resting, etc., and oddly, the added gameplay actually serves to make the game more boring (if that sounds counter-intuitive, think of it as dilution -- adding a lot of boring gameplay to an otherwise decent game diminishes the game overall). Outside of that steering, though, there's incredibly few actual decisions to make in the game. You decide when to hunt, fish, or gather berries. You decide whether to interact with stuff you pass. You decide when to rest. ...that's pretty much it. Resting is the heal-all; it heals your oxen, repairs your wagon, and heals your family members.
The game has an incredibly simple internal dynamic of speed vs. rest. Your goal is to balance these two to reach Oregon in time in the best shape. The faster you go, the more your health suffers. The slower you go and the more you rest, the more your health improves. It's pretty much that simple. And, aligning with that, the failure condition is equally simple: die or fail to reach Oregon before November 1st. The failure condition is non-obvious, though, given that you'd think you could keep traveling, and that the conditions would just get more challenging; but apparently, you magically quit trying when the calendar flips to November 1st. I've been to Oregon, Winter does not start on November 1st there.
The thing is, those interaction styles aren't terribly different from what they were in the older Oregon Trail games. There, you chose your pace, your rations, when to rest, and when to hunt. It was basically that easy. So why is it bad here? In those games, a run through the trail took 15 to 20 minutes; the simplicity was because there wasn't time to get deep, and that was a good thing. In Oregon Trail for the 3DS, it takes a couple hour or so to run through the entire trail once. That's a long time to be doing the same half-dozen things over and over. Maybe it's not fair to say the gameplay is boring -- maybe it would be more accurate to say there just isn't very much of it.
Poor 3D and Touchscreen Use
I'm hesitant to majorly criticize the game for these since I understand it was a low-budget production by a small company that can't afford the great graphics designers of other bigger developers. I wouldn't hold that against the company. But there are still design decisions and mistakes that it doesn't take a big budget to avoid, but yet, Oregon Trail makes them.
Let's start with the graphics. The game is in 3D basically because it has to be, and I'm not going to overly fault it for the depth being misleading and off sometimes. However, the game's interaction method (which I'll criticize in the next section) involves putting a 2D pointer over the entire 3D screen, and depth-wise, the pointer is located way off in the distance, even though it always appears in front of everything. So, when you move it over something in the foreground, it just looks weird -- like half the foreground object has disappeared and you're looking through a hole in it to this cursor beyond it. It just looks weird, and the solution would have been as simple as putting the cursor in the foreground.
The hunting minigame suffer a similar problem. The crosshairs are rendered at some weird location along the z-axis between you and the target, making it almost impossible to actually hit your target without turning off the 3D. The 3D, ideally, is supposed to actually make crosshairs easier to use, but when their z-axis location is behind the target (even though they still appear in front of it), it makes it very hard to use.
The touchscreen functions, on the other hand, are just useless. You use the touchscreen to interact with the menus, which is fine, but you also use it in the fishing and hunting minigames. In fishing, you use it to drag your rod to where you want to cast it (even though the rod appears on the top screen), and on the bottom screen, you drag it around to move your crosshairs. Both features would've been better handled by the control stick, but it definitely felt like the developers felt obligated to use the touchscreen since it's a 3DS game.
Strange Content Choices
The overall structure of the game itself is still pretty weird to me. I still can't figure out what exactly they were going for. The game is divided up into four stories each with three chapters each. Each chapter basically gives you new characters to play as, and a different back story as to who you are and why you're going to Oregon. However, once you actually get out on the trail, it's all basically the same. There's no consistent reminder of the story. There's a diary structure that documents your journey that's actually kind of cool, but it's basically the same for anyone you play as. The stories don't really feel like they serve any purpose except to try to give you a reason to play more than once.
The various chapters/stories do affect minor things on the trail, like the prevalence of wildlife and Indians, but overall it's such a minor, subtle shift that affects such a small portion of the gameplay that you're likely to barely even ever notice it. It's more akin to playing a racing game with a different car than anything else -- there's certain visual differences, but nothing major. It affects the strategy somewhat since it determines things like when you leave, how much money you have, how much food you need, etc., but it doesn't change anything in a more fundamental sense. Needing more food and needing to go faster, for instance, aren't strategic demands, they're just straightforward requirements. You need more food, so you buy more food; there's not a complex shift in strategy that has to accompany these subsequent chapters.
There's also trophies in the game, largely due to House Resolution 7331 which mandates that every game produced after 2008 have some sort of achievement or trophy structure. Those trophies also unlock different "heirlooms". Whenever you start out on the trail, you choose one heirloom, and it gives you its effect for the duration of the journey; it might help your oxen stay healthy, help fish be more common, etc. That's all they really do, and they just seem like another way of trying to make the player play the same mundane sequence of events over and over again some more.
Overall, the game just plain missed the mark on what kind of content best suited this kind of game. This game was best suited to 20 to 30 minute journeys to Oregon based on relatively simple decisions. Simple decisions work fine when the overall length of the game is short, but when the game dragons on like Oregon Trail does, they lose their appeal really fast.
The overall interaction structure in Oregon Trail is very confusing as well. I mentioned above that the cursors on the 3D screen are confusing, and that's still true. At different places along the trail, you stop to talk to people, but in order to talk to them, you have to click on them instead of being given a context-sensitive menu option. Same thing happens in towns, the only way to browse the three vendors is to click each one by one, a needlessly slow process.
But that's one of the more minor complaints I have. The majority of the interaction, aside from the hunting and fishing minigames and the wagon steering, occurs on the touch screen through menus. When you're just traveling along, the touchscreen shows icons to demonstrate the status of your passengers, your food quantity, your wagon quality, and your oxen's health. Most of these icons are very unclear about what they actually mean, though. The passenger icons, for instance, are silhouettes; the person part will turn green if they're sick, while the background will turn from white to red as their health deteriorates. It's never clear, though, how these interact, and the color progression of the background is hard to read. On multiple occasions, I wasn't sure if my passenger was getting better or worse.
These status screens generally don't give you the information you want. You'd want more easy-to-read summaries of the passengers' statuses. You'd want a number for how much food is left, not a color that maps to a weird spectrum ("warning, low food!" color happens when you have enough food for two more legs of the journey, apparently). The screen just doesn't give you the information you want, like amount of food, number of bullets, inventory, etc. What's more, when you stop, that screen is exchanged for a screen with five buttons, none of which make it obvious what underlies them.
There's a speed meter on the bottom screen that is supposed to tell you if you're running ahead of or behind schedule. I thought that was a pretty good feature, until the first time I played through and lost for taking too long even though the speed meter showed me running well in the 'green' area. I'm still not sure what it actually describes. But my biggest confusion on the interaction came with medicine. The first time one of my passengers got sick, I declined to use medicine. I wanted to see if she'd get better on her own. A few days later, she was still sick, so I decided to use the medicine, but I couldn't. You could only use it when prompted. What's the point of even having an inventory screen with item descriptions if you can only use them when the game says, "Hey, wanna use this?"
Overall, the interaction with the game is just clunky and confusing. You don't get the information you need when you need it, it's confusing what different icons represent, and you don't have the flexibility you'd expect. It's just a weird game to interact with.
Where's the Nostalgia?
Please don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that nostalgia is the only thing that could make Oregon Trail good, nor am I saying it should be expected to go to great lengths to include as much fan service as possible. Still, though, there are just certain thing I think it is reasonable to expect from an Oregon Trail that are conspicuously absent here. This isn't just about things that should be included as an homage; this is about good features of the old Oregon Trail games that it's senseless to leave out.
First of all, think back to Oregon Trail. What do you remember, besides dying from dysentery? If you're like me, you remember the landmarks you'd pass, like Chimney Rock and Fort Kearney. You'd remember the very distinctive music that would play in the background of those landmarks. You remember attempting to ford the river, caulking the wagon and floating across, taking a ferry, or waiting to see if conditions improve. You remember the little facts about the trail. You remember the weather.
All that, gone. I don't know why, but there are no longer any distinctive landmarks. They'll call some of the stops along the way by the same fort names and drop a little fact about who owns it, but that's all. None of the interesting landmarks. None of the charming music. No weather. No rivers; there still are rivers, but you cross those rivers just like you cross the regular terrain, no fording or caulking or ferrying. The entire length of the entire trail looks basically the same; it gets a little less vegetative and more desert-y in some places, but nothing to really profoundly change the setting the way the changing ground color and mountains in the distance did in the original Oregon Trail games. It's a bit crazy when a game with only 16 colors can create a better atmosphere than one in full 3D.
Lastly, while I never bought the idea that the old Oregon Trail games were particularly educational, they did have some value to them. Oregon Trail for the 3DS has no real redeeming educational value to it at all. You simply don't learn anything. You don't learn about how hard life was on the trail because everything that happens just feels so random and game-y. You learn little about the history of the trail or the landmarks you pass. It's just lost everything that made the series appealing in the first place.
All that said, you still notice I'm giving the game a 3 instead of a 1, despite all my criticisms. Why is that? Well, one point is because it was put together by a small, low-budget collection of developers, so the fact that they could put out something that was even playable is respectable. Secondly, though, the game does have a weird enjoyment to it. Don't get me wrong, I didn't enjoy the game overall, and I couldn't send it back to GameFly quite fast enough. Yet, there were definitely some moments when it was just... nice.
The only way I can describe this is with a Harvest Moon analogy. Harvest Moon is usually an enjoyable game just because it's rather slow, relaxing, and peaceful. The game mechanics are often broken, the games are often quite glitchy, and the graphics are always at least one generation out of date. Yet, they're still fun because their appeal doesn't rely on those things.
Oregon Trail is like that. There are just moments when the game is somewhat simple and peaceful. Sometimes you're hunting, sometimes you're fishing, but the game just feels at times very slow and methodical, in a good way. It just comes across as rather pleasant. This is offset and balanced by the frequency with which problems can strike; if you rest for six days, chances are you'll have a pair of wagon fires and a pair of bandit strikes. These are never devastating, but they just add kind of a feeling of simple activity to the game.
Something interesting that augments this feeling is that there's a good bit of stuff that happens to you in the game that you just can't prevent. You will run out of medicine sometimes and be unable to heal your passengers. You will get robbed and there won't be anything you can do about it. I know it sounds strange, but that kind of lends to the peaceful charm of it; you don't feel like you have to make everything happen, certain things just happen to you and your only task is to somehow recover.
All this is tied together by a surprisingly good diary structure. At the end of each leg of the journey, you see a journal entry written by your party leader that actually describes the events that happened, such as robberies, fires, illnesses, and deaths. It surprised me several times with how smooth it flowed; of course, you know that it's just random tidbits assigned to the events, but it actually read very nicely. I was impressed.
I understand that Oregon Trail is a low-budget game compared to many 3DS games out there. I understand that it probably shouldn't have cost $40, and that a lot of design choices -- full 3D environments, 3D hunting and fishing -- were probably made more of out necessity than actual desire. So, I certainly wasn't expecting it to compete with Super Mario 3D Land or anything (even though, in my opinion, that game was pretty awful as well). And, as my ongoing article series on Gaming Symmetry describes, I would definitely weight my opinion of the game based on its development team and resources.
But the fact is that Oregon Trail isn't even as good as many Flash games assembled online solely by teams of volunteers and amateurs. It fails in areas in which you don't necessarily need significant monetary resources to succeed. Good graphics, good physics engines, things like that need an expensive team of programmers to put them together, but good game design doesn't need more than one or two savvy designers. I'd be willing partially to excuse the graphical problems and other issues, but bad design is bad design, and you don't need a team of expensive designers to avoid it.
Reviewer's Rating: 1.5 - Bad
Originally Posted: 01/23/12
Game Release: Oregon Trail (US, 12/13/11)
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