Matt's Journey on The Oregon Trail

Matt Barton's picture

I can think of very few "edutainment" titles that have inspired the deep, long-lasting veneration earned by MECC's The Oregon Trail. Originally a mainframe game, The Oregon Trail was designed by three student teachers at Carleton College in Minnesota. It was a nice collaboration--Don Rawitsch was a history instructor, whereas Bill Heinemeann and Paul Dillenberger were math teachers. The three of them put their heads together to figure out a way to use computers to teach kids, and Don's historical background gave him the key insights necessary to create The Oregon Trail.

The Oregon Trail was popularized in 1985 when it was at last commercially published by MECC for the Apple IIe computer, and this version quickly circulatHunting: Big Buck Hunter Meets Apple IIHunting: Big Buck Hunter Meets Apple IIed throughout American schools. I remember playing the game on a Franklin (Apple clone) at Urania Elementary in Louisiana. Who would have thought I would be writing and talking about that game two decades later.

What makes the game so much fun to play is no doubt its balance of management, strategy, and arcade action, all based on a historically authentic setting. The developers loaded the game with history--it comes out in conversations with fellow travelers as well as the geography of the trail itself. Even the music is historical! A kid hoping to learn some facts about American in 1848 could do a lot worse for herself than to spend a few hours playing The Oregon Trail.

The bulk of the gameplay consists of moving between landmarks--we might call them "waypoints" today. Some of these are forts, where players can buy additional equipment and supplies, and rivers, which must be crossed, floated across, or forded. Players can start off rich or poor, and must carefully balance their resources and plan far ahead if they hope to get to Willamette intact. I must admit, I was only able to get there after losing my wife, who died of cholera, and good friend Rob, who died of typhoid fever. Playing this game really gave me an appreciation for the brave settlers who made this arduous journey.

Rafting: Totally tubular! Rafting: Totally tubular! The minigames consist of the famous hunting sequence, a simple shooting game that nevertheless holds up well today, and a wagon rafting sequence. The rafting sequence is recognizable to fans of games like Toobin', and it's quite fun.

Still, these arcade segments are merely marshmallows in the cereal. The real value is the history and the management, two things that any kid (or adult, for that matter!) would do well to learn.

The Oregon Trail's popularity was challenged by Broderbund's Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? games that arrived in the mid 1990s. These games eventually became popular enough to warrant a PBS TV series and spawned many sequels. Still, there have been few other edutainment games that have gained major attention, though I'd like to think Her Interactive's excellent Nancy Drew games are the heir of such useful and important projects.

Still, I know that many of us still have a soft spot or The Oregon Trail, and I'd love to hear your stories about the game. Did you play the commercial version, or one of the earlier public domain ports? Did you play the sequels (Yukon Trail, Amazon Trail) or perhaps MECC's other hit, Lemonaid Stand? Sound off below and let me hear all about it.

BTW, you can play the original game very easily in your browser: Oregon Trail. Happy trails!

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yakumo9275
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Joined: 12/26/2006
I have not looked at it yet

I have not looked at it yet (matt chat#9)... but three edutainment titles that rang my bell when I was in school

- where in world was carmen sandiego
- dinosaur discovery (I think this was autralian only, certain its very different from what I can find with the same name)
- flowers of crystal (I think it was by same people as dinosaur discovery)...
(all on apple ii)...

I remember my computer teacher back in elementary school letting us play transylvania.... man that rocked back then
(I didnt have an apple).

If you can do edutainment 'well' like oregon trail etc, you can make, I think a much better impression + game than just a plain old entertainment title.

I dont think they age well, certainly the simplicity of Carmen was one of its key featuers, I could imagine a modern remake would be all glitz and FMV of actual locations and such and quite meh....

-- Stu --

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Matt Barton
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True, true. I actually think

True, true. I actually think the Carmen Sandiego series is due for a comeback, perhaps not with FMV but it could easily be done- perhaps integrating the web. When these games are done right, they have huge appeal, because many people love the thought of getting more out of entertainment than just pure amusement. I think that's why people love to participate in sports--sure, it's fun and all, but you have a very nice side benefit of getting or staying in shape. The same is true for games like this; you have fun, but also expand your mind.

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Bill Loguidice
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Carmen Adventures USA
Matt Barton wrote:

True, true. I actually think the Carmen Sandiego series is due for a comeback, perhaps not with FMV but it could easily be done- perhaps integrating the web. When these games are done right, they have huge appeal, because many people love the thought of getting more out of entertainment than just pure amusement. I think that's why people love to participate in sports--sure, it's fun and all, but you have a very nice side benefit of getting or staying in shape. The same is true for games like this; you have fun, but also expand your mind.

It's *almost* a shame that the Carmen Sandiego got all the press, as Polarware's "Adventures Around the World" was ready first and could have saved that classic company: http://graphicsmagician.com/polarware/spyadv.htm . With that said, to the victor goes the spoils and certainly the Carmen Sandiego series became an amazingly long running and influential franchise, even conquering television. I have a few Carmen Sandiego games in my collection, including an interesting oversized teacher's edition. I haven't played them much, though, but that kind of thing always fascinated me. Another interesting one I did play (though pretty different in implementation) was "Agent USA" on the Commodore 64.

Vintage Games book!
Xbox 360: billlog | Wii: 1345 2773 2048 1586 | PS3: ArmchairArcade
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.

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Mark Vergeer
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Matt - I am a fan of this series. Can't help it!

I believe we had a version on one of the computers in high-school and we played it through various times. It really gives you a glimpse of what you need to take into consideration when planning such a venture.

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Armchair arcade Editor | Pixellator | www.markvergeer.nl

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Matt Barton
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I didn't get to play Carmen

I didn't get to play Carmen Sandiego very much either, though I remember teachers talking about it and playing it briefly on a PC. For some weird reason, my dad insisted that it was pronounced "Kilimanjaro," like the mountain. Never figured that one out.

At any rate, it would be a prime candidate for a future Matt Chat. Lots of educational value and tremendous commercial success. I can number titles like that on one hand.

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Chris Kennedy
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Bush Buck

Have any of you heard of or played the game Bush Buck: Global Treasure Hunter? I had never heard of the game at the time I first experienced it. I remember entering a computer store to browse around and see what this "newfangled CD-ROM device was all about" when a clerk approached me and said, "Hey would you like a free game?"

I immediately figured the game just hadn't done that well, but it seems like I found it entertaining once I played it. I think it was on two 3.5" HD disks. The box cover looked like an obvious play on Indiana Jones.

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Matt Barton
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I've never heard of Bush

I've never heard of Bush Buck, but did find it on Mobygames. It sounds rather like Carmen to me. :) I noticed the ratings were low, but you know how unreliable they can be.

The only educational game I remember playing on my Amiga was some kind of sci-fi platform spelling game. You had to spell words to open up corridors: Discovery: Spelling. Apparently, there was a bunch of them for different subjects.

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Catatonic
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Joined: 05/20/2006
Another great video! I'm

Another great video!

I'm sure I played Oregon Trail, or a similar game -- my memory of it is really hazy. It might have been "Canadianized" for us. I do remember Carmen Sandiego quite well though. Never caught her!

Does anyone remember an Apple II or II GS game where you design a paper airplane and then see how it flies? That's all I remember... old educational software can be REALLY hard to find now.

Bill Loguidice
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Great International Paper Airplane Design Kit
Catatonic wrote:

Does anyone remember an Apple II or II GS game where you design a paper airplane and then see how it flies? That's all I remember... old educational software can be REALLY hard to find now.

I remember the "Great International Paper Airplane Design Kit" for the first iteration of the Macintosh (128K). I *think* that appeared on multiple platforms.

Vintage Games book!
Xbox 360: billlog | Wii: 1345 2773 2048 1586 | PS3: ArmchairArcade
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.

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Catatonic
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Great International Paper Airplane Design Kit
Bill Loguidice wrote:

I remember the "Great International Paper Airplane Design Kit" for the first iteration of the Macintosh (128K). I *think* that appeared on multiple platforms.

Unfortunately, that's not it. The software you mention above is just templates that you print out. The game I remember involved flying your designs in the game. Hmm. Mobygames doesn't seem to have it. It may have only been sold to the educational market.

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