Wednesday, October 09, 2002
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My Generations Timeless Classics: Oregon Trail
posted by B
It must've been really hard to have a little house on the prairie.
The winters were hard, your children would randomly go blind, and a big tree fell on the guy with the Oakland A's hat from "Highway to Heaven" once. Not to mention that your best daughter (at least the one the camera was on most of the time) was always off fishing with the town banker Mr. Sprague in some weird pond/prostitution ring to get him to buy school books for her. Now I know why Michael Landon always had that look on his face, somewhere between Dirty Harry, squinting to see an eye chart, and pooping out a two-footer. And the worst part about living on the prairie is that you can't even have normal dogs. All the dogs on the prairie look like hamsters standing on their hind legs. Thanks a lot, Darwin!
But as hard as it was to live on the prairie, it must've been even more difficult to pack up your bags and head off to a better place out west. I recall the story of the Donner Party, who left their homes in Illinois for the bright lights and hardly talented basketball teams of Sacramento, California. They ended up eating each other. And just recently, Richard Donner directed "Lethal Weapon 4," which showed us that Jet Li's years of dedicated training and natural ability are no match for Mel Gibson's feathery hair and Danny Glover's belly full of twinkies. It is an American tragedy we're still feeling almost 4 years later.
Since roughly 1985, public school children (known as "the ones God hates," as I understand) have been conditioned to fear and respect the journey made by those brave, ass-meat craving Midwesterners with no sense of direction. It was the year the Nintendo Entertainment System hit it big, but games that were actually FUN...like Super Mario Bros. or Duck Hunt...were just hitting the outer shell of importance in our lives. Sure, they were fun...but they weren't being dangled in front of us as the only alternative to middle school typing class like Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation's "Oregon Trail" was. Oregon Trail is neither very fun nor especially challenging, but the quest to GET the game early enough in class to finish it before the period was over became akin to the quest a man lost in the desert undertakes to keep vultures from pecking out his eyeballs. Oregon Trail was our oasis, our relief from the most useless and brain retarding lessons our early 90's computer tech teachers could muster up.
Am I the only one who got fed up with the goofy sentences we were forced to type? Most people really got into the class in sixth or seventh grade so it was a giant Delorian ride back to kindergarten in the grammar and syntax department. Some of the classics include:
a sad lass
she had a green jade
he had a jak sale
What in God's green name is a fucking "jak sale??" I can't remember the name of the rapidly developing and (subsequently) rapidly undressing redhead that sat next to me in class or the color of my teacher's hair, but I can still type "he had a jak sale" thirty-thousand times a minute. If I ever come across a jak sale, or a sale of green jade from some sad lass I'm going to buy them all, and burn them.
I remember the first day we were introduced to the game distinctly. I thought our teacher said "Organ Trail," since we all come from Virginia and can barely even walk upright, much less speak coherently. So I was expecting something completely different from a trailblazing game, something along the lines of Splatterhouse (which was HUGE for about 20 seconds) or possibly a computerized attempt at sex education. I remember playing "Kings Quest" and commanding him to "fuck" everything in sight. He just kept saying "I cannot understand." And you wonder why so many of us are getting pregnant nowadays.
Today's Sexual Education:
"Today, Snowhite was turning 18. The 7 Dwarfs always where very educated and
polite with Snowhite. When they go out work at mornign, they promissed a
*huge* surprise. Snowhite was anxious. Suddlently, the door open, and the Seven
Though completely devoid of lesbian fairy tale double entendre or (debatably) action of any kind, Oregon Trail became such a fantastic diversion from school work and jak sales that it instantly turned into a classic, and an electronic cornerstone for many of our lives. Some of the dorkier kids would always choose Math Muncher, or Kings Quest ("What shall I do now?" FUCK the tree), but on any given day the hallway would be filled with the goofy DOS music pumping from our computers like a pimply raver trying to ease his last dollar of gas into a car without spinning glow sticks around and passing out. It was a painful procedure all the way around, but it was worth it, dammit.
Oregon Trail starts off with a 20 minute anime cut scene...no...actually it starts off with a white screen that says "Oregon Trail." The blood boils with excitement! Around this point, the dumber kids in class (the ones who sat in the corner during gym class drawing the Grim Reaper on their Trapper Keepers and the cheerleaders...not that I didn't love the cheerleaders, because I did, but even oncoming puberty can't defend a chick who can't understand that typing "Y" means "yes" and "N" means "no") would give up. The choices come a mile a minute, and before you know it you're choosing your own destiny -- picking whether you want to be a banker, a carpenter, or a farmer.
Picking "banker" means - you start off with so much money that you can buy food for the entire trip, never have any problems, and keep your family from getting typhoid. And trust me...your family is gonna get typhoid a LOT. No matter how well off you are or how well you play the game, the Minnesota Educational Wrecking Crew Corporation has programmed the game to give you outlandish diseases and make you die. It's a lot like your Mom! OOOOOH BUUUUURNN
The new look of Zelda disappoints fans.
Picking "farmer" means - you start off with very little money, but if you win the game as farmer you get the most points. Getting the most points means...absolutely nothing. Games where you earned respect based on how many points you get died long before I can remember, and is only survived by games like "Dance Dance Revolution." Personally I would like all people who get off on Dance Dance Revolution to get typhoid and be buried with a humorously obscene tombstone along the Oregon Trail. This brings up two of the best parts of Oregon Trail:
The diseases - You name it, this game has it. As you progress down the trail, pressing the space bar every two seconds to remove the "bad water" and "insufficient grass" messages that pop up after every step your oxen take, the game plays God and decides to give you, say, "dysentery." So your character takes a dump until they die. You never get shot in the neck by Indians, or punched humorously by John Wayne like all the trail goers I've ever heard about, you get the shits and croak. You also get cholera in the game, so I'm guessing Minnesota's Educational Computing involved a lot of uncomfortable bathroom time.
Pick yourself up and try again. You can reset and try again!
The tombstones - When your party dies off, the leader of the group gets buried where you stopped. That way, when you play next, you can pass by and look at your past failures. As emasculating as this may sound to the bad Oregon Trail player, it's one of the best parts of playing the game at school...the kids (no matter how old they are, they maintain the 2nd grader sexual maturity) give their party leaders names like "CUNTBUTT" and "ASSFUCK" and "COCKEATER," a far cry from names like "Jeb" and "Mary" that the game suggests. The tombstones also come with an epitaph feature, which allows the educated player to leave a fond farewell to the dearly departed...most of these read like "BETSY IS A WHORE SHE EATS THE MOST DICK" or, if there isn't a personal vendetta to attain during the period, "shit shit shit shit shit fuck fuck fuck." Finding an Oregon Trail tombstone without profanity on it is like finding a good episode of "Primetime Glick."
What is the first name of the wagon leader? I'm a name her Bonnie.
Anyway, back on the subject...
Picking "carpenter" means - you get an average amount of money, you're good at fixing any wheels or axles that may break along the way, and you have the satisfaction of pretending that you're Jesus on your way to heal some lepers or smote some Pharisees in Oregon.
Game strategies involve choosing which month to leave in (if you leave too early the Spring weather and cold can be detrimental...if you leave too late you chance getting caught up in December snows), budgeting your cash so you have enough supplies (like clothing to trade the Indians, food to give to the Indians, and bullets to shoot Indians and take your clothes and food back), and, most importantly of all, the BEST part of the game:
Have you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head?
Don't expect those flashy Commodore 64 graphics you've been hearing so much about, Oregon Trail makes you feel lucky to get a few trees, bushes, or rocks in your hunting grounds. Your naked little albino man travels out into the black wilderness (there's some subtext I'm missing there) to slaughter the wildlife for your own survival. No matter where you stop, the little critters zip around the screen, like squirrels, rabbits, and deer. The real satisfaction comes when the bears and buffalo show up. What's more educational than causing some extinction? Wasting what you kill! Yes, Oregon Trail allows you to slaughter thousands of pounds of meat per stop, but only lets you carry 100 pounds back. Leaving a trail of rotting buffalo guts at least gives you vindication when Oregon Trail gives you Hershey squirts and you die.
Another anal retentive part of the game is crossing the various rivers you come by...they range from a foot deep to 20 feet deep, and the options get better. You can caulk your wagon and float it across, which works 99% of the time. If you've got the urge to lose the game for some reason you can attempt to ford the river, which involves just basically driving your wagon right through the center of it. If there's anything deeper than a thimble full of water you bet Oregon Trail's gonna over-exaggerate two feet of water enough to drown all your oxen and family with. There's nothing sadder than a river full of dead bodies, with little spurts of diarrhea popping up every few seconds to mark the tragedy.
Ike Turner beat his wife for singing about this stuff.
Making it past the Gamecube-quality illustrated towns and monuments allows for ANOTHER River adventure...one of the most exciting moments in the game, when the player is called upon to use motor skills unsurpassed in modern sports and entertainment. As your wagon floats down the river at about a frame every 10 seconds, you see these rocks up ahead...so you have to push the right or left arrow keys on your keyboard to MOVE THE WAGON. OMFG it's so much fun, we would gather around the comp of whoever had made it to this part, because it's like the victory lap. And just like how Oregon Trail looked like Resident Evil next to SHES A SAD LASS SED A JAKED LAD, the river rafting looks like Wipeout XL compared to plodding journey between anal leakage warnings.
What's the big payoff, you ask? Do you get a big celebration, a lengthy tribute to the hardships you had to face, or even a big pack of toilet paper? None of these things.
A mere congrats and instant judgment based on how many points you earned. Is this a macabre message to middle school miscreants that running away from your problems won't get you anywhere, or that overachieving and braving new worlds isn't going to get you anything but a half-assed pat on the back and indifference? The worst part is that Oregon looks like every other landmark you cruised by on your way here. They could've at least put some gold or some payoff in there. This was Oregon to me in 1985, confound it, I wanted a big digitized picture of Clyde Drexler dunking for my efforts. Instead, the bell would ring, and I'd go to art class.
The message learned here is that we are doomed to forget the very men who paved the way for our freedoms and enterprise. If we've gotten anything from the people of Minnesota outside of a football team that can't win the big game and Mr. Perfect Curt Hennig, it's the computer education in social and achievement irrelevance. It's almost as bad as Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!!, where Mike rewards your efforts with a lame compliment ("I've never seen such finger speed!").
But Oregon Trail has a place in our hearts, regardless. Whenever we're tired of good graphics, interesting gameplay, or anything that involves productively spending ones time, Oregon Trail's bouncing music rings in our ears as a fond remembrance of a time when school wasn't about getting pregnant and shooting the popular kids. It was about she having a green jade for her jak sale and gathering around the computer to celebrate innocence, perseverance, and accomplishment.
Lots and lots of poop.