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The dangers of retracing the classic 'Oregon Trail' game on the iPhone

February 24, 2009 |  7:13 pm
Oregon Trail iPhone
Suit up your wagons. Oregon Trail is coming to the iPhone. Credit: Gameloft

Some video games are timeless. Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda, Tecmo Super Bowl ... they never get old.

Unfortunately, some don't hold up so well.

After writing about the revival of Oregon Trail for the iPhone a couple weeks ago, I downloaded an emulated copy of the Apple II classic (bringing with me a bucket of nostalgia) and saddled up the wagon.

And, boy, was I disappointed. It takes about 10 minutes just to get past the initial customization phase, and the whole thing gets pretty tired after that. It almost made me wonder how this occupied me through grade school.

With a new version for the iPhone, mobile software developer Gameloft has polished the old wagon and taught it a few new tricks. I spoke with the game's lead producer, who asked to remain unnamed because of the company's policy of not disclosing the identities of its developers (it doesn't want them to get poached by competitors).

The producer said he also had a sobering experience when he revisited the classic. "One of the things that's kind of strange with these nostalgic games is that you've got incredibly fond memories of the original," he said, "but when you go back and play it later, it doesn't meet your expectations."

Gameloft considered including the original as a bonus with the $5.99 iPhone game, which will be available on the App Store sometime next week. But the developers decided against it, in part to protect the game's soft, cuddly spot in the back of our brains.

And so, Gameloft rebuilt the Oregon Trail from its rusty parts. In terms of game play, Gameloft remedied the original's first big problem: having to micromanage supplies at the outset. Now players ...

... choose from one of three supply packages to start.

Compared with the original "edutainment" game, the iPhone version has less educational value, according to the game's producer. While you'll run into historical characters, such as Abraham Lincoln, and see historical facts on the loading screens, it doesn't pack quite as much learning.

"It's still educational but definitely not to the extent that the original game was," the producer said.

Ot_iphone_02
Oregon Trail's hunting mini-game. Credit: Gameloft

But all the essentials are there. You can still choose between fording or rafting a river. You can name your crew after friends and family, and then watch as they break bones or become infected with cholera and, yes, even dysentery.

"We really wanted to maintain the nostalgic feel of the original," the game's producer said.

Along with a host of mini-games, Gameloft packed in a few new obstacles as well. Children can get snatched by bald eagles, and wagons might get tossed by tornadoes.

When deciding how to revamp the graphics, the Gameloft producer said the team went with a cartoon style to keep the game light and accessible.

"We realized that we were doing a lot of bad things to the party members along the way to Oregon," he said. "So we wanted to try to make sure that people were still having a good time and weren't horrified at what was happening to their poor little party."

Gameloft's take on Oregon Trail is currently available for about 550 cellphones, but the new version is a "dramatic upgrade," the producer said. The company has added or improved upon every aspect of the game.

The iPhone version takes almost twice as long to complete as its other mobile counterparts, he said. The entire adventure will eat up 1 1/2 to two hours of your time. And players can save progress about every five minutes of travel.

We have yet to actually play Gameloft's bold redux. But we're very curious about whether it can compete with our delusional memories of the original.

-- Mark Milian

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