The Oregon Trail handheld game now available

March 5th, 2018 7:54 AM
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Oregon Trail is seeing not only a resurgence in popularity, but also translation to a variety of media, from card game to stage play to Minecraft skin. Just now hitting the streets is yet another adaptation: the Oregon Trail electronic handheld game.

This game is the product of Basic Fun, a company that has released dedicated handhelds based on arcade classics such as Frogger, Q*Bert and Pac-Man. Oregon Trail seems to be the first time they've adapted a computer game, especially one that requires alphanumeric input. As such, this is not a straight port, having been adapted to use the handheld's directional keys.

This is not the first Oregon Trail game to be available exclusively from Target, with the 2016 card game and its follow-up being the first. But unlike those previous releases, Basic Fun's game isn't yet listed on the store's website, and it can't even be found on store shelves — at least not when I tried. After confirming Target had the game in stock, I asked a store clerk about the game and provided them with DPCI (similar to a SKU) 087-10-2886. They looked it up in their inventory and found that all 12 of the store's units were still sitting in a box in the back room, yet to have been put on display. Knowing how hard it'd be to find these games once they were released, I asked if there was a limit to how many I could buy. Indeed there was: I was limited to the 12 they had in stock.

I, uh… I may have gotten a bit carried away.

I'll continue my exploration of this handheld journey to Willamette Valley in Juiced.GS!

(Hat tips to Kevin Savetz and Kirk Millwood)

Oregon Trail IRL

February 5th, 2018 12:59 PM
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As art imitates life, so too does life occasionally imitate art. Such is the case with Oregon Trail, a 2,170-mile wagon route that became the basis for a timeless Apple II game. The edutainment software has in turn been adapted to real-life interactive events, as with Oregon Trail Live, an annual event in Salem, Oregon, that will next be held on Saturday, September 8.

But for those in Colorado who didn't want to wait that long, the non-profit History Colorado recently hosted Oregon Trail IRL, a one-day event officially sponsored by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt:

Relive your childhood, as the vintage The Oregon Trail video game becomes a live-action experience set throughout the museum. Test your pioneering skills as you hunt for food, ford a river in a human hamster ball, play the original game in our '90s throwback library computer lab, plus so much more. Finish your immersive experience in our graveyard lounge with cash bar and music.

Colorado itself has few ties to the historical Oregon Trail; according to Wikipedia, "A branch of the Oregon trail crossed the very northeast corner of Colorado if they followed the South Platte River to one of its last crossings." But the state does lay claim to Chris Torrence, renowned Apple II blogger and videographer. The latest episode of video podcast series, Assembly Lines, features his expedition to the sold-out Oregon Trail IRL.

Oregon Trail IRL looks just like the game it's based on: both fun and educational. My thanks to Chris for capturing this experience for the rest of us!

(Full disclosure: I support Chris on Patreon.)

Teens play Oregon Trail

November 27th, 2017 3:35 PM
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Last month, 1990s kids played Oregon Trail. They had nostalgia going for them when they set out from Independence, Missouri. Would a new generation of travelers, untested on the Oregon Trail, find a similar appeal on the road to Williamette Valley?

A year after shooting the original video, Buzzfeed returned to the Oregon Trail with that question by inviting three pairs of teens to play Oregon Trail.

"I have trouble believing this is from the 1990s," said one kid; "it looks prehistoric." Well, sure: the original version was released in 1971, and the Apple II edition from 1985 remained largely unchanged for the 1990 MS-DOS port played here. By that point, the game had nearly 20 years of history behind it. But kids who are teens now likely weren't alive in the 1990s, so in that sense, the game is "prehistoric".

Even though today's gamers may be accustomed to more action and less information, I'm still surprised by the response of one teen who survived all the way to Williamette Valley: "It's pretty underwhelming." Oregon Trail's graphics aren't significantly different from the variety of pixel-art retrogames available today, such as VVVVVV, or the reading required by gamebooks, such as The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Given that many of these kids had never heard of Oregon Trail, I'd be very curious to know if their impressions would've changed had Oregon Trail been presented as a modern game designed with a retro aesthetic.

1990s kids play Oregon Trail

October 30th, 2017 10:38 AM
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Many of us in the Apple II community were first introduced to the computer in its heyday. And for some younger members, that introduction occurred in the classroom, playing Oregon Trail.

If that wasn't our last encounter with the Apple II, then we wouldn't be surprised if we booted Oregon Trail today and saw blocky graphics and heard rudimentary music — that's typical of an early 8-bit computer. But if we graduated from that classroom and never looked back, then we might be surprised that Oregon Trail isn't quite what we remember — if we remember it at all.

That's what Buzzfeed set out to test in a react-style video: it recruited adults who grew up in the 1990s (a bit after the Apple II's height of popularity) — adults who have apparently never played modern adaptations of Oregon Trail, such as Organ Trail — and asked them to play Oregon Trail.

Despite the hardware and software being from their youth, both seem absolutely foreign to these players. They expect mouse input where there is none; they're surprised by the amount of text and lack of real-time interactivity; the keyboard controls for hunting are indecipherable (I'm guessing it's IJKM); and one couldn't remember where the Oregon Trail led. (Hint: it's in the title.)

Even if this video is a rough reintroduction, the gamers nonetheless seemed to enjoy themselves. Their exasperation at the various maladies that befall their parties has an undercurrent of amusement. One test subject even says he might go home and play Oregon Trail. Now that would be a win!

In the end, these players congratulated themselves — not on making it from Independence to Willamette Valley, but on playing the game at all. They commented, "Kids these days would hate this game… They wouldn't have the patience." Is that true? Stay tuned…

Minecraft Oregon Trail

September 25th, 2017 12:26 PM
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Steve Weyhrich has gone whole-hog on Minecraft, having used the construction game to develop multiple Apple II models. Now Microsoft, the owners of Minecraft, are getting in on the retro action by infusing their virtual world with the most emblematic of Apple II software: Oregon Trail.

Now available is an Oregon Trail world. Just download the free package, install it in Minecraft Education Edition, and you'll find yourself in the town of Independence, Missouri, deciding whether to be a farmer, banker, or carpenter — just like on the Apple II.

Said Caroline Fraser, senior vice president of Oregon Trail publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: "We are delighted to partner with Minecraft Education, giving students a new way to experience one of the most popular educational games of all time, The Oregon Trail. Through the unique magic of Minecraft, students will be drawn to discover the wonders and challenges that pioneers encountered on this famous journey."

However, this version of the Apple II classic comes saddled with limitations. First, the downloaded world does not change Minecraft's rules of game mechanics; it does not introduce new features. While there are signposts along the journey asking players how they want to ford the river, for example, this is more an opportunity for classroom discussion than it is part of an interactive branching narrative; the game doesn't require any action in response to these billboards.

Also, the world works exclusively in the educational version of Minecraft, which was released in 2016 to schools and educators. The average consumer will not have access to this version of the game, nor will the Oregon Trail world work in any other version of Minecraft.

What happens if you try installing the world in a non-educational edition of Minecraft? In an email, the Apple II community's resident Minecraft expert, Steve Weyhrich, suggests there are further differences under the hood:

The original Minecraft, written in Java, is what runs on Mac and Windows, and has it's own data structure and format. Microsoft is now calling this "Minecraft: Java Edition". The newer Minecraft, now just called "Minecraft", is written in some version of C, and they are trying to make all of the various platforms (pocket edition, Windows 10 edition, etc) use the same world structure… That Oregon Trail world in that download you linked does not work on the Java edition.

It's a rare case of the Apple II version actually seeming more accessible and educational by comparison!

(Hat tip to Stephen Noonoo)

More Steamed Apples

July 31st, 2017 10:40 AM
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At KansasFest 2016, I presented parallels between classic gaming and modern Steam games. The session was called "Steamed Apples" and was largely based on indie games I'd encountered while researching and hosting the IndieSider podcast.

That podcast ended earlier this month, but not before I discovered several more games reminiscent of Apple II software mechanics and aesthetics. That combined with unused notes from last year's presentation led to its follow-up at KansasFest 2017: "More Steamed Apples".

Unlike last year, I no longer constrained myself to games available for Mac, Windows, and Linux, as some of the below games are Windows-only (such as Lode Runner Legacy) but were too good a fit to pass up. Also, as I did last year with Plangman, I accidentally slipped one non-Steam game in when I included Leadlight Gamma, which is available from itch.io only.

I've recategorized the genres since the presentation to make them a better fit, and to be more consistent with last year's categories.

GenreClassic gameSteam gameIndieSider?
ActionCrystal QuestEllipsisYes
ActionDino EggsDino Eggs RebirthNo
AdventureOut of This WorldOutlandNo
ActionLode RunnerLode Runner LegacyNo
PuzzleLemmingsInklingsNo
PuzzlePipe DreamWorld of GooNo
SurvivalOregon TrailThe Flame in the FloodYes
Text AdventureZorkLeadlight GammaYes
Choose Your Own AdventureScholastic Microzine TwistaplotOpen SorceryYes
Choose Your Own AdventureScholastic Microzine TwistaplotEmily Is AwayYes
Choose Your Own AdventureScholastic Microzine TwistaplotThe Warlock of Firetop MountainYes
Choose Your Own AdventureScholastic Microzine TwistaplotFirewatchNo

As IndieSider has now concluded its run, I don't expect there will be a third session in this series. But the games included in these tables should be enough for any Apple II user to get their entertainment fix in a modern computing environment.