The Oregon Trail may be unfamiliar to anyone outside of the US, but for a certain generation of Americans it's practically an institution. Used in history classes, the original Oregon Trail taught school kids about their forefathers' migratory route across North America by mapping out landmarks and settlements through decision making gameplay. What made the classic Oregon Trail such a powerful tool was its ability to straddle the line between video game and educational tool - we see a lot of edutainment titles thrust about these days but very few that get the balance just right.
So we fast forward 20 years and find ourselves with a new version of the trail from developers Gameloft. Although the basic core gameplay remains the same as the original title, Gameloft has tipped the balance in favour of fun over learning, with a whole host of new mini-games that utilise the touch screen.
The basic story starts you off with a wife, three children and an ox-drawn wagon. As the head of the family you are given the choice of three professions (each of which has an impact on how you play) and it's then up to you to guide your family across America making decisions on everything from the route taken to the supplies needed for your journey.
To begin with, playing The Oregon Trail feels dull and arduous. Very little happens early on and it's easy to become despondent with the fairly limited hunting mini-games that make up the staple of the beginning of the game. If you can persevere for a month or so (a month in the game represents about 30 minutes worth of play) the game starts to become more involved and you start to get the feeling that your decisions are really affecting the outcome of your family's progress. Some of the later mini-games are actually very fun in their own right; panning for gold by tilting the iPhone left and right is just one example of how the new technology is put to good use.
What really makes The Oregon Trail so unique is the feeling of journey. Everything down to the layout (in a change to the norm your characters move from right to left across the screen as if they are actually traveling west) to the various fictional and non-fictional characters you meet, bolster the feeling that you are embarking on something epic. The game is comparatively short (about 4 hours) but you get a real sense that your band of travelers have grown with the trials of crossing the great plains and it's almost anti-climatic when you finally reach Oregon.
The Oregon Trail's slow beginning will undoubtedly deter less patient gamers, but if you can grind your way through the early stages you'll be rewarded with a game that's both immersive and thoroughly enjoyable.