As a gift to the people of 2015, the Internet Archive—the non-profit digital library—recently uploaded more than 2,400 playable versions of MS-DOS games to its site. Among the more forgettable titles, anyone can now play "The Oregon Trail," a title nearly universally revered by the generation that grew up playing it. But does a game that introduced millions of children to dysentery merit a high level of regard?
I spent yesterday playing as much "The Oregon Trail" as I could stomach. This turned out to be 4 hours and 32 minutes in 14 games played. I couldn't have played a minute more: The game is terrible.
The object of the game is to have as many members of your five-person party survive the 2,000-mile historic trek from Independence, Mo., to Oregon's Willamette Valley. You're given the option of playing as a banker, carpenter, or a farmer. The lower you are in the economic totem pole, the more difficult your life on the trail will be. Given that this was my first game in more than a decade, I went with the banker and his bigger wallet.
I soon learned that whatever I picked didn't matter. The game is set up to destroy you and your exploratory spirit in every way possible. At any given moment, you are guaranteed to be robbed, get sick, or lose equipment to the river. Something awful will happen regardless of your skill set (I became an expert at managing my resources and caring for my team's health after 14 infuriating games, but it didn't matter).
By the sixth game, I abandoned all hope. Accepting the fact that my actions ultimately didn't matter, my mission went from trying to survive the journey unscathed to seeing how quickly I could kill off members of my team, who I happen to name after some of my colleagues.
The thought of my colleagues contracting and then dying of a more extreme version of diarrhea briefly made me chuckle, but it wasn't enough to make me feel like playing "The Oregon Trail" was worth my time. Neither was actually beating the game (I did it three times), largely because my reward for surviving was a shoddy pixelated rendering of the Willamette Valley.
Even accounting for the disparity in graphics and gameplay between then and now, "The Oregon Trail" feels menial and formulaic. Its arbitrary nature makes the game as fun as trying to guess the outcome of a coin toss for more than four hours.
It also fails as an educational tool. Outside of the map, the game doesn't teach you anything. It fails to explain the historical significance of the trail, or why people were migrating en masse to the West. In contrast, "Where in the U.S.A. is Carmen Sandiego?," another MS-DOS educational game of the era (it's also available at the Internet Archive, and it surprisingly holds up well), teaches you geography as you play.
So why does everyone love "The Oregon Trail" so much? Because it was inescapable.
The game was distributed by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), an organization created to provide hundreds of educational software programs to the state's schools. The MECC's collection of titles was so extensive (they also offered games like "Number Munchers" and "Odell Lake"), that schools outside of Minnesota wanted them. In 1980, the Iowa Department of Education paid the MECC $100,000 for access to their catalog, becoming the first organization to pay for wholesale access rather than purchasing each individual title. Others quickly followed suit. By the 1985-1986 school year, more than 4,000 school district in the United States, Canada, and other foreign countries were members of the MECC and therefore had access to their massive software catalog. Since then, more than 65 million copies of the game have been sold.
Dennis Scimeca, a video game writer for The Daily Dot who recently wrote a great piece on the challenge of striking a balance between being fun and being instructive that education-oriented video games face, also pointed out to me that the popularity of "The Oregon Trail" also benefits from being the first at something.
"People today react positively to the mention of 'The Oregon Trail' not necessarily because it was comparatively fun," he told me via email,"but owing to the fact that for some people [the game] may have been one of their first exposures to video games, period."
That was certainly the case for me. Not only was it the first video game I ever played, but it was also my first exposure to a computer. I'd imagine that may also be the case for many of my contemporaries, individuals who were in elementary school right as personal computers were being introduced into the classroom.
I'd like to clarify that my harsh critique of "The Oregon Trail" isn't meant to deny its historical significance. Quite the contrary, the Internet Archive should preserve it given that it represents a shared memory for an entire generation. That said, nostalgia cannot make "The Oregon Trail" a good game, and if you still disagree, I challenge you to spend 30 minutes playing it.
Fidel Martinez is an editor at Fusion.net. He's also a Texas native and a lifelong El Tri fan.