The Oregon Trail (1985 video game)

The Oregon Trail is a computer game developed by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) and first released in 1985 for the Apple II. It was designed to teach students about the realities of 19th-century pioneer life on the Oregon Trail. In the game, the player assumes the role of a wagon leader guiding a party of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon's Willamette Valley via a covered wagon in 1848.

The Oregon Trail
The NEW Oregon Trail (Apple II box title)
The Oregon Trail Classic Edition (DOS CD-ROM title)
DOS Cover art for IBM/Tandy
Publisher(s)MECC (1985-1995)
SoftKey Multimedia/CompuServe Incorporated (Classic Edition)
Designer(s)R. Philip Bouchard
SeriesThe Oregon Trail 
Platform(s)Apple II, DOS
Release1985 (Apple II)
1990 (DOS)
1996 (Classic Edition)
Genre(s)Historical simulation game, resource management

The game was designed and created by a team at MECC, led by R. Philip Bouchard, who also served as the principal designer. It was loosely based on an earlier text-based game named Oregon, originally developed by Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger in 1971 and released on the MECC timeshare system in 1975,[1] followed by similar versions for Apple, Atari, Commodore, and Radio Shack computers (from 1978 to 1984).[2][3]

The 1985 The Oregon Trail is the first graphical entry and the most well known entry in the Oregon Trail series, and was released in multiple editions between 1985 and 1993 for several platforms, including Apple II, DOS, and Macintosh computers. Games in the series have since been released in many editions by various developers and publishers, many titled The Oregon Trail. The multiple games in the series are often considered to be iterations on the same title, and have collectively sold over 65 million copies and have been inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame. The series has also inspired a number of spinoffs such as The Yukon Trail and The Amazon Trail.



The player can choose to be a banker from Boston, a carpenter from Ohio, or a farmer from Illinois. Each profile starts with a specified amount of money to spend at the supply store (the banker has the most, the farmer the least), before beginning their journey. After the player sets off from Independence, Missouri, there are several landmarks along the trail where players can make decisions, shop for supplies or rest. Players can purchase supplies such as oxen to pull the wagon, food to feed their party, clothing to keep their party warm, ammunition for hunting, and spare parts for the wagon.[4] These landmarks include: Kansas River, Big Blue River, Fort Kearney, Chimney Rock, Fort Laramie, Independence Rock, South Pass, Fort Bridger, Green River, Soda Springs, Fort Hall, Snake River, Fort Boise, Grande Ronde Valley in the Blue Mountains, Fort Walla Walla, and The Dalles. When approaching Oregon's Willamette Valley, travelers can either float a raft through the Columbia River Gorge or take the Barlow Road.[5]


An important aspect of the game was the ability to hunt. Using guns and bullets bought over the course of play, players select the hunt option (#8) and hunt wild animals to add to their food reserves. In the original version, players controlled the wagon leader who could aim a rifle in one of eight directions and fire single shots at animals.[6] In later versions, players hunted with a cross-hair controlled by the mouse or touchscreen. While the player can shoot as many wild games as they have bullets, only 100 pounds of meat can be carried back to the wagon at once in early versions of the game. In later versions, as long as there were at least two living members of the wagon party, 200 pounds could be carried back.[6] Also in later versions, players could hunt in different environments (hunting during winter showing snow-covered grass, for example), and the over-hunting of animals would result in "scarcity" that reduced the number of animals appearing later in the game. Some versions also allow the player to go fishing.


Throughout the course of the game, members of the player's party can fall ill and not rest, which causes further harm to the victim. The party can die from various causes and diseases, such as measles, snakebite, exhaustion, typhoid, cholera, and dysentery, as well as from drowning or accidental gunshot wounds. The player's oxen are also subject to injury and death.


At the conclusion of the journey, a player's score is determined in two stages. In the first stage, the program awards a "raw" or the unscaled number of points for each remaining family member (weighted by party health), each remaining possession (weighted by type), and remaining cash on hand (one point per dollar). In the second stage, the program multiplies this raw score depending on the party's initial level of resources determined by the profession of the party's leader; for example, in the Apple II game, a banker starting with $1600 receives no bonus, the score of a carpenter starting with $800 is doubled, and the score of a farmer starting with $400 is tripled.[4] The player's score is added to a high-score list.[7]


Original version

In 1971, Don Rawitsch, a history major and senior at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, taught an 8th grade history class at Bryant Junior High as a student teacher.[8][9] His supervising teacher assigned him to prepare a unit on the westward movement of people in the United States, and Rawitch, along with his roommates and fellow Carleton students Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger decided to create a game for the school's computer instead.[10] They implemented the basics of the game in two weeks, and after they presented the game students would line up outside the door for their turn and stay after school for another chance.[10] When the school year ended, Rawitsch deleted the program from the computer, after printing out a copy of the source code.[11]

In 1974, Rawitch was hired by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-funded organization that developed educational software for the classroom, and he began to rebuild the game, still using text-based output, for the organization. He decided to research the events of the Oregon Trail that he had not had time for with the original game, and changed the random events, such as bad weather or wagons breaking down, to be based on the actual historical probabilities for what happened to travelers on the trail at each location in the game. Rawitsch calculated the probabilities himself, basing them on historical diaries and narratives of people on the trail that he read.[10] Rawitsch uploaded The Oregon Trail into the organization's time-sharing network, where it could be accessed by schools across Minnesota. The game became one of the network's most popular programs, with thousands of players monthly.[11][12]

After Rawitsch published the BASIC language program code for the game in Creative Computing magazine in 1978,[13] volunteers adapted the source code to run on various timeshare computers and newly invented personal computers. In 1980, MECC included one of the Apple II versions of Oregon in a product called Elementary Volume 6, a collection of five social studies simulation games.[14] Although the game structure and random events in Oregon were identical to the timeshare version, the text-based hunting feature was replaced with a graphical version of the activity.[6] In 1983 and 1984, this early Apple II version was ported to the Atari, Commodore, and Radio Shack computers, published by MECC in a product called Expeditions, a collection of three of the activities from Elementary Volume 6.

Graphical version

The Oregon Trail continued to be a popular title, and in October 1984, MECC commissioned programmer R. Philip Bouchard and a small team to make a graphical version for the Apple II computer. The new version was to be released as a standalone game and appealed to the home market instead of the school market. The team consisted of lead designer Philip Bouchard, lead programmer John Krenz, lead artist Charolyn Kapplinger, Shirley Kieran on research, and Bob Granvin for additional programming. Bouchard was told the new version had to be an expansion on the original game, not only an update to the graphics. The new version was designed to be more accurate to the real Oregon Trail and for the game to have better "replayability".[7]

Over the course of the development, 21 innovations[7] were made from the original:

  • More detailed and accurate geographic locations to real life.
  • A landmark-based travel cycle, where players can visit famous landmarks.
  • Continuous daily cycles, so that players can encounter a new event every in-game day and keep track of their supplies every day.
  • The addition of branches in the path. Allows the player to make a decision of which way to go.
  • The addition of river crossings.
  • Improved hunting option.
  • A point system.
  • Family members that accompany the player.
  • The ability to talk to human characters at landmarks and shops.
  • River rafting game.
  • Tombstone scenes when a family member dies.
  • A health model that tracks the condition of the family members.
  • A weather system that allows for different weather every in-game day.
  • Detailed resource management.
  • A travel screen which appears when the player is traveling on the trail.
  • The inclusion of a General Store, where players can purchase in-game supplies.
  • Diseases the family members caught were more specific.
  • The inclusion of difficulty levels.
  • The ability to trade with other characters at landmarks.
  • Options to rest or change pace.
  • Music that accurately represents what songs were popular at the time of The Oregon Trail.

The development time of the new version lasted 10 months, from October 1984 to the end of July 1985. The game was released in autumn 1985.[7]

GUI versions

The Oregon Trail
Oregon Trail Deluxe VGA (DOS documentation title)
Oregon Trail for Windows (Windows documentation title)
SoftKey (TLC Properties Inc.)
SeriesThe Oregon Trail 
Platform(s)Mac OS 6, MS-DOS 5.0, Windows 3.1
Release1992 (Mac, DOS)
1993 (Win, MECC)
1997 (Win+Mac, SoftKey)

In 1991 through 1993, MECC released an updated version of the game for three different platforms – Macintosh (in monochrome, 1991), DOS (with “Deluxe” added to the title in 1992),[15] and Windows (1993). The GUI-based version includes redesigned interfaces, improved graphics featuring 256-color elements. The DOS version supports Adlib music and 256-color support via VESA BIOS extensions, while the Windows version uses MIDI music files. Other changes include:

  • Additional character classes, such as Blacksmith, Doctor, Merchant. Depends on character classes, score multiplier can go from x1 to x3.5 in .5 increments.
  • Some characters also have specific abilities such as improved health, improved odds of repairing broken wagon.
  • When trading, it is possible to specify the desired item(s) during trade session.
  • Hunting is changed to first-person view, with preys travelling only horizontally across screen. Shooting is done via point and click, but there is lag time between firing and bullet hitting the target spot.
  • River rafting game is changed to '3D' top-down view, with map of river shown at side. Steering is done by moving cursor controlled by pointing device.
  • Ability to save game progress and travel log.
  • Landmark information can be viewed at any time when a campaign is running.
  • Ability to change in-game speed, hunting time.

Windows version also includes following:

  • Various decision and configuration dialogue boxes now saved in separate locations.
  • Guide, Status, Rations, Trade, Talk, Pace Buttons open in pop-up dialogue box. Random event now appears in pop-up dialogue box.
  • During a hunt, maximum amount of food that can be brought back is increased to 200 pounds.
  • Food is separated into non-perishable and perishable categories, with hunted food belonging to perishable group. When food is eaten or traded out, perishable food tends to be spent first before non-perishable food. If perishable food is not spent for an extended period of time, it can be lost to spoilage.

Handheld version

A version of The Oregon Trail using DOS version 2.1 graphics[16], produced by Basic Fun (subsidiary of The Bridge Direct), and released in 2018. It was initially a Target exclusive, but in 2019, it has been seen in other retail stores such as Walmart.[17][18] Changes from the DOS game include:

  • High scores are saved internally at the device.
  • Navigation of menu items are done using direction keys and extra buttons found in device's keypad.

Reception and legacy

Review score

The Oregon Trail was extremely successful, selling over 65 million copies,[20] after ten iterations over forty years.[21] It was a hallmark in American elementary schools in the 1980s, 1990s, and early-mid 2000s as many school computers, including the Apple II, came bundled with the game.[22][23] The game's popularity in school computer labs led to the terminology Oregon Trail Generation to describe people born during the Millennial and Generation X cusp years. The video game has been described as an identifying experience for these cuspers, typically described as those born during the late 1970s to early 1980s.[24] Smithsonian magazine observed, "The Oregon Trail is still a cultural landmark for any school kid who came of age in the 1980s or after. Even now, there remains a constant pressure to revive the series, so that nostalgic Generation Xers and Millennials can amble westward with a dysentery-riddled party once again."[25] In 2014 it inspired a parody musical, The Trail to Oregon![26]

Polygon described it as one of the most successful games of all time, calling it a cultural icon.[20] IGN (in 2009) described the game as a "fond memory that will not let you down".[27] Due to its widespread popularity, The Oregon Trail was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016.[28][29] Out of the 12 games currently in the Hall, The Oregon Trail is the only educational game.[30] In 2012, The Oregon Trail was listed on Time's All-TIME 100 greatest video games list.[31] In 2016, Time placed the game 9th on its "The 50 Best Video Games of All Time" list.[32] It was also included in the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die.[33]


  1. Garnjobst, Nicole (October 19, 2017). "Oregon Trail (computer game)". MNopedia. Minnesota Historical Society. Retrieved August 15, 2019.
  2. "MECC Educational Computing Catalog 1984-85". MECC. July 1984. pp. 41, 63, 69, 72. Retrieved August 15, 2019.
  3. Bouchard, R. Philip. "A Brief History of the Oregon Trail Game". Retrieved August 18, 2019.
  4. "R. Philip Bouchard | The Oregon Trail | Introduction". Retrieved September 19, 2018.
  5. Hider, Anna (May 9, 2013). "The Oregon Trail: From Wagon Route, to Video Game to Road Trip!". Roadtrippers. Retrieved August 9, 2018.
  6. Bouchard, R. Philip (August 16, 2016). "Designing the Hunting Game for "The Oregon Trail"". The Philipendium. Retrieved September 19, 2018.
  7. Bouchard, R. Philip (June 29, 2017). "How I Managed to Design the Most Successful Educational Computer Game of All Time". Medium. Retrieved September 19, 2018.
  8. Lipinski, Jed (July 29, 2013). "The Legend of The Oregon Trail". Mental Floss. Archived from the original on July 31, 2013.
  9. Shea, Jeremy (February 24, 2014). "An Interview With the Teacher-Turned-Developer Behind 'Oregon Trail'". Yester: Then For Now. Retrieved August 29, 2015.
  10. Walker-Emig, Paul. "The Making of the Oregon Trail". Retro Gamer. Future. pp. 32–37. ISSN 1742-3155.
  11. Lussenhop, Jessica (January 19, 2011). "Oregon Trail: How three Minnesotans forged its path". City Pages. Archived from the original on January 23, 2011.
  12. Grosvenor, Emily (September 25, 2014). "Going West: The World of Live Action, Competitive Oregon Trail". The Atlantic. Atlantic Media. Retrieved September 25, 2014.
  13. Rawitsch, Don (May 1978). "Oregon Trail". Creative Computing. pp. 132–139. Retrieved August 15, 2019.
  14. "Elementary Volume 6". MECC. 1980. Retrieved August 15, 2019.
  15. "The Oregon Trail Deluxe". MECC. 1992. Retrieved August 18, 2019.
  16. OT: Oregon Trail handheld, Target store exclusive
  17. Here's the portable version of The Oregon Trail you didn’t know you wanted
  18. Review: The Oregon Trail Handheld (Basic Fun, 2018)
  19. Hunt, Drew (n.d.). "Oregon Trail Review". Allgame. Archived from the original on December 10, 2014. Retrieved May 18, 2017.
  20. Campbell, Colin (July 31, 2013). "The Oregon Trail was made in just two weeks". Polygon. Future plc. Retrieved October 27, 2014.
  21. Rosenberg, Eli (January 21, 2011). "Sally Has Diphtheria: Is Oregon Trail the Greatest Video Game of All Time?". Retrieved August 29, 2015.
  22. News sources (October 27, 2017). "'Travel Oregon: The Game' builds on 'Oregon Trail' legacy". KTVZ.
  23. Cortez, Meghan Bogardus (September 27, 2017). "'Minecraft: Education Edition' Brings 21st-Century Students Back to the Oregon Trail". Ed Tech.
  24. Garvey, Anna (April 21, 2015). "The Oregon Trail Generation: Life Before and After Mainstream Tech". Social Media Week. Retrieved April 9, 2018.
  25. Jancer, Matt (July 22, 2016). "How You Wound Up Playing The Oregon Trail in Computer Class". Smithsonian.
  26. Zimmerman, Danielle (July 14, 2014). "'The Trail to Oregon' musical review: A new kind of Starkid show". Hypable.
  27. Buchanan, Levi (March 5, 2009). "Fond Memories: The Oregon Trail". IGN. Retrieved October 27, 2014.
  28. Campuzano, Eder (May 5, 2016). "'Oregon Trail' officially inducted into the Video Game Hall of Fame". The Oregonian.
  29. Blanchett, Aimee (May 10, 2016). "Minnesota-made 'Oregon Trail' is inducted into Video Game Hall of Fame". Star Tribune.
  30. "The Forgotten History of 'The Oregon Trail,' As Told By Its Creators". Motherboard. February 15, 2017. Retrieved September 19, 2018.
  31. Aamoth, Doug (November 15, 2012). "All-TIME 100 Video Games". Time. Time Inc. Archived from the original on November 18, 2012.
  32. Fitzpatrick, Alex; Pullen, John Patrick; Raab, Josh; Grossman, Lev; Eadicicco, Lisa; Peckham, Matt; Vella, Matt (August 23, 2016). "The 50 Best Video Games of All Time". Time. Time Inc. Archived from the original on August 26, 2016.
  33. Mott, Tony (2010). 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. Universe Publishing. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-7893-2090-2.
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