Before kids hunted for Carmen Sandiego, in a time when computers could barely muster a few on-screen colors, a game called The Oregon Trail taught students about the hardships of pioneer life. The graphics were terrible, the sound effects were awful, and more often than not, all your characters died. But it was the first video game I ever played, and I’m thrilled that Basic Fun!, which previously resurrected classic games like Simon and Pac-Man, has made a portable version of The Oregon Trail that almost perfectly recreates my grade school obsession.
So why do so many children of the ‘80s have fond memories of The Oregon Trail, when the game itself really isn’t that amazing? I think a big part of its nostalgic attraction comes from the fact that many of us got to play it at school, as an educational tool, which was a welcome break from staring at a chalkboard all day. Think back to your favorite memories of grade school, do any of them include solving math problems?
As simple as the gameplay and graphics of The Oregon Trail were, after playing Basic Fun!’s version, I’ve found that the game still provides a genuine challenge, even for adults. I’ve been playing this handheld version since last week, and I’ve yet to successfully get my entire family safely out West—I’m a terrible pioneer.
This morning alone I lost two oxen during a river crossing, a thief stole some of our rations during the night, and my loved ones were slowly wiped out by dysentery, cholera, and typhoid. Nostalgia certainly plays a part in wanting to revisit The Oregon Trail, but so does my obsession with wanting to finally finish the game.
Emulating The Oregon Trail is relatively easy with the internet at your disposal. And updated, touchscreen-friendly versions of the game, with vastly improved graphics, can be easily downloaded to your smartphone. But Basic Fun!’s new handheld version not only makes it even easier and more convenient to play, it also does a fantastic job at recreating The Oregon Trail experience you remember as a kid. The Game Boy-like console is even designed to look like a compact version of the classic Apple II personal computer, complete with a dull gray plastic housing, and a tiny diskette you can actually push to power the game on or off.
Instead of more traditional gaming controls, The Oregon Trail includes a truncated version of the Apple II’s mechanical keyboard, and while the buttons definitely aren’t using real switches underneath, they’re still quite satisfying to mash while you play through the game.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the unorthodox design of the console’s directional pad. It’s really only used while you’re hunting in the game, but everyone knows that’s the best part of The Oregon Trail, and the gamepad’s additional diagonal movement buttons work quite well for aiming and shooting thousands of pounds of deer and buffalo your character will never be able to carry back to their wagon.
For a $25 video game system, I was also pleasantly surprised at the quality of the two-and-a-half-inch screen used on The Oregon Trail. The brightness and contrast are excellent, and the game’s primitive graphics and colors look lovely on its tiny display. But I do think the screen is a little too small, and that, combined with its limited resolution, does make it hard to read some of the game’s smaller text prompts, even for someone who doesn’t wear glasses. It’s not a deal-breaker, but you will occasionally find yourself squinting and holding the handheld uncomfortably close to your face.
For $25 you can also get a copy of Star Wars: The Last Jedi on Blu-ray, but that’s a thinly-veiled attempt to sell you nostalgia that’s been prettied up with fancy visual effects and shirtless Sith Lords. Basic Fun! isn’t trying to make the original version of The Oregon Trail into something it isn’t here. Instead, it’s embraced everything that made the game so endearing and challenging, and packed it into a portable console that’s a cheap and enjoyable way to re-experience pioneer life on your own pilgrimage to work every day.
- A near-perfect recreation of The Oregon Trail video game experience from the ‘80s, right down to the chunky keyboard you use to play it.
- The Game Boy-sized handheld only plays The Oregon Trail, which really isn’t the pinnacle of video gaming.
- At $25 it’s cheap enough to be an impulse purchase that will actually entertain (or frustrate) you for hours.
- The handheld’s excellent screen is unfortunately a little on the small small side, and reading smaller text can be a little challenging.
- You can actually save your progress and resume the game later, which is a feature I would have loved in the ‘80s.
- The Oregon Trail now has the potential to educate a new generation on the dangers of dysentery.