That one day, I would take my covered wagon across the American frontier. In a covered wagon with modest provisions, I would brave the wild unknown and conquer the trail blazed by many settlers before me. I hoped against hope that amidst snake bites, river fordings, poor hunting skills and cholera, I, too, would see the bright lights of a little place called Oregon.
A dream that was truly a crock of poop.
Like many kids who grew up in the 80's and 90's, I was delighted by this week's TIME article announcing that MS DOS games were available to play online. For FREE. Games I thought were only the stuff of my memories (and locked away forever on the Commodore PC from my childhood). Games such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (of which I could never get past the library), Stunts, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Deluxe Ski Jump, this one called Sex Vixens from Space (which I never played but find humorously [uncomfortably?] phallic), and, of course, the mother of all MS DOS: The Oregon Trail.
What kid who lived any stretch of the 90's didn't play this game? I'm pretty sure it was mandated in schools. There was something exciting about harkening back to the days of our country's beginnings, imagining the life of frontier families. As a kid, having ownership of decisions that truly meant the difference between life and death was weighty, but we welcomed it. When you are young, you have no say. No power. Not so in Oregon Trail. Here, I had the opportunity to negotiate trades, make calls on how intense our pace was, ration our food and decide whether or not to ford that great river or take the ferry.
I could hunt stuff.
I don't know how much our floppy disk of Oregon Trail cost back in 1990, but I'd imagine it was a chunk of change compared to the no-cost version on Archive.Org. So once I read the (first few sentences of) the article, I hopped over and started the journey west. I was ready to conquer the Oregon Trail.
And I immediately remembered how much I detested this game
Sure, making decisions was fun at the time. But as an adult you realize the control you think you have is actually an illusion. The Oregon Trail commands control. ALWAYS. You think you're calling the shots? Well think again, Lewes and Clark. Oh, you're adjusting your pace and rations because you think it'll be better for your caravan? You know nothing, Annie Oakley.
The Oregon Trail will pwn you.
Seeing the game through adult eyes, I quickly realized I was set up for failure among the first few screens of the game. I am asked what profession I would like to be as I begin the game. Looking over my options (banker, carpenter, farmer), I pick farmer. I feel I am choosing wisely because farmers are industrious when working with the land, which I thought might come in handy on the trail.
(Oh yeah, I'm going to play the crap out of this trail).
This was my first mistake.
Because you learn that a farmer's modest budget for the journey is $400. Four hundred dollars to buy all the supplies needed to survive the harsh, cold realities of the frontier. I later learned that the banker has an account four times as big. That's right. The big wig banker gets $1600. But I bet when push comes to shove, said banker will be a big sissy about getting his pin-striped suit wet while fording the dang river.
With money in hand, I am set to begin my dealings with Matt, the owner of the General Store. In case you didn't know, Matt is a capitalist bastard who wants nothing more than to see you die a horrible death in the wastelands of unsettled America. Matt finds this funny and revels in the unsuspecting chumps he sends completely unprepared into the wilderness.
How do I know this? Because Matt, who is set up as a mentor of sorts and is supposed to guide you in attaining the right provisions for the journey, screws you from the beginning. He's the general store owner. What's not to trust? So of course you take his advice and buy the "necessary" 3 yoke of oxen (at $40 a pop!) and 200 pounds of food per person (at $0.20 a pound) for your 5 person team. Oh look, you've already spent $320 of your $400 budget. And you still haven't purchased clothes, ammunition or spare parts.
Somehow I think Matt is getting the better end of the deal here.
After purchasing enough clothes for 1.5 of us and enough ammunition to possibly take down a pair of squirrels, we set off for the Great Yonder. We keep our pace steady and our rations filling. We don't want to start off on a bad foot, now do we?
The first leg of the journey is uneventful, and I make the wise decision to caulk the wagon and float once we reach the first river instead of fording it, due to the 5 feet of depth. This proves wise, and we make it across no worse for the ware.
It's about this time I realize the game's complete and utter power over my journey. Like some greek god deciding my fate, with a few hand swishes and points of a triton, I am doomed.
At our first trading post, I attempt to make a trade due to the fact that we don't have enough clothes or spare parts to continue. I am given only one option: Townsman Robert will gladly trade you 25 bullets for a spare axel.
But I don't have an axel.
And I don't need bullets.
So we move on.
Bill, who proves to be our weakest link on the frontier, immediately comes down with the measles (which I assume came from someone who chose not to vaccinate at the last trading post). Our health goes from good to fair, but he eventually recovers...
...only to break his leg. Despite the fact that we haven't stopped moving since our last post. So unless he was unwisely walking around the covered wagon without his seatbelt, I find it a bit suspect.
To improve our caravan's health, I do what any good wagon leader would do with no money or trading capabilities: I hunt. After figuring out the awkward keyboard controls, I manage to take out 2 bison and an elk with minimal bullets. Pride wells up in my soul until I am told on the next screen that despite coming away with 972 pounds of meat, I can only carry 100 back to the wagon.
What the hell, OT?
Why do you allow me upwards of 60 seconds to robotically move up down left right, shoot my white bullets and take down all of the mighty beasts of the wild if only to make me leave them as wasted carcasses for the hunger vultures above.
It's humiliating, Oregon Trail.
And I think you like our suffering.
We come across another river and find it is only 3 feet at it's deepest. Perfect. Let's ford this bad boy. They say that a shark can attack in less than one foot of water. Well I have found that even in a robust covered wagon, you can be bested in water lower than waist-height. We barely make it across and informed that we lost a valuable amount of supplies.
Another wheel breaks right around the time we arrive at our next trading post, Laramie. Here, Emmanuel will happily trade us 2 sets of clothes for an axel.
Which we don't have.
BECAUSE WE BROKE IT.
For the sake of our sanity and survival, we take a much-needed 2 week rest at Laramie. You'd be surprised how fresh air, eating and recuperating does so little for my fledgling team. I need to get out of the cabin to clear my mind, so I take a hunt. This time, I take down 3 bison, 2 elk, as well as a rabbit and a squirrel. Of the 1,113 pounds of food I acquire, my weakened body can only carry, you guessed it!, 100 pounds back.
Forget this. Let's hit the road.
We don't get far before we are devastated by a wagon fire. A wagon fire. How does this even happen? I doubt we have matches and at this point we're not even stopping to pee. In this fire, we lost all but a handful of bullets.
Aren't bullets forged in fire?!
(Oh the humanity!)
No one makes it to Oregon.
Oregon is a fairytale. A pipe dream. A tall tale for innocent minds. We know Matt fares just fine. I'm sure the townsfolk at Laramie are having a big ol' laugh over our demise. And perhaps there are a few of you skillful players who know just the right combination of choices that get you, in some way shape or form, to this place called Oregon.
But you don't actually arrive. Not really. You may be there in body, riding a half-burned wagon with wood rotted from fording and the only remaining family member-turned-zombie on the brink of death from dysentery.
But your soul?
Oh no, friends.
Your soul was stolen the moment you chose "1" to take the trail.
So, let this be a word to the wise:
Sure, you can absolutely play The Oregon Trail for free.
But know that no one, not ever, truly makes it to Oregon.