Review: Organ Trail: Director’s Cut

OrganTrail

For some reason when I was a youth, my parents decided to buy an Apple II personal computer system.  Most of the games we had for it were pretty horrible, but I was allowed to play them all I wanted because they were supposed to be educational in nature.  All of these titles required the player to solve ten math equations or answer some kind of grade school trivia question (geography, simple deductive reasoning, grammar) before being allowed thirty seconds of play with a game so pathetic that if it was released today on iTunes it would sell the number of copies equal to the developer’s friends.  Which would, in turn, probably reduce that number as soon as they played it.  So, for those among us that grew up when computers with color monitors first started showing up in schools, it should be obvious from the title and the screenshots that this game is an homage to The Learning Company’s classic game/simulation/not-really-a-game-but-labeled-as-one-anyway learning tool, The Oregon Trail.

This “game” is one of the most remembered pieces of software for the old Apple system for letting floppy slingers know that “Carl has dysentery.”  For those born in the nineties and thus oblivious to the path to the Oregon Territory, the premise of the game was that players would name a family, buy some supplies from a starting pool of cash, and then take them on a trip along the historic and titular Oregon Trail to hopefully survive to see the famed Willamette Valley.  The learning part came in transforming the textbook sentence “A lot of Americans moved west in the mid 1800s and it was hard-goings,” into a reality.  The virtual settler family would hop into a covered wagon and plod its way to the West Coast with random events happening along the way.  Family members or the more essential oxen could fall ill or get bitten by a snake, broken wagon axles could grind the trip to a halt if a spare was not available, or supplies could be lost trying to cross rivers.  Various trading posts allowed additional supplies to be bought to hopefully finish the journey.  Those that do not make it were buried on the side of the trail with a simple, but customizable, headstone which could be visited on subsequent journeys.  It was a very basic game but could be challenging or even impossible if enough bad events randomly happened in a row.

Other than settlers had it rough, the only thing I ever learned from the game was that it is great to be rich.  Players could start the game as a Farmer, Carpenter or a Banker.  Farmers start with basically nothing and bankers have phat stacks, meaning they could start out with “mad” supplies as opposed to, maybe, enough food for a week and one set of clothing for everyone.  Not having the money to buy whatever you want stinks.  I guess it’s good to teach kids that at a young age.

Fast forward two decades: Now there is a parody game in the style of the original that brings the trappings of the very old classic into a new game.  The premise is largely still the same, in that players will become the leader of a party trying to make it to the western part of the country.  The main difference now is that there are zombies. Hence the title Organ Trail.

The setup is that a zombie outbreak has come about and a group of people need to board their station wagon in order to make it to the last known secure location in the continental United States.  After a short story intro, which can be skipped after it is played once, the not-settlers can spend resource points to start out with essentials like food, gas, spare mufflers (noise attracts zombies) and medical supplies.  Setting out will present a stylized screen showing the seemingly stationary station wagon with its wheels spinning while a simple background scrolls along.  The traveling screen which pauses with periodic event messages such as “You find some Wild Berries” or “A bandit shoots out back window”, adding food and reducing the car’s condition respectively, will be immediately familiar to anyone who played the old Apple II version of The Oregon Trail.  Whenever a town is reached a full screen of artwork will display welcoming the road weary party.  These are a treat as they are completely in the style of an Apple II game and many contain subtle references to popular zombie games and movies.

Ultimately, this reimagining and the original will teach that in a survival situation, there is really only one resource and one currency: bullets.  Just like on the trip to Oregon food did not need to be purchased if one was very good at the hunting mini-game, in the quest to keep your Organs the best skill by far to have is being able to shoot a gun really well.  At any point in time on the trail, the party can stop to camp for a while.  They could rest to regain health, and deplete food, fix their car and use scrap, or the party leader can also go out into the world to scavenge for supplies.  This activity will, again, look very familiar to anyone who got good at the hunting mini-game on their way through the middle part of the 8-bit country.

Players will control a stickman with a hat and what appears to be either a rifle or a white mop handle sticking out of his chest on a black field with a few randomly placed, crudely rendered boulders and trees.  Whereas in the original players were trying to shoot hyper-velocity, micro squirrel targets or wait for the slow, easy to kill buffalo to wander on screen, here the little man will be shuffling slowly to collect the supplies that randomly spawn while avoiding and shooting zombies.  The shooting will take some getting used to as it requires that a line from the target to the character be drawn with the mouse before releasing the mouse button.  It is very awkward at first but after a few zombie shootfests players can learn to take quick motions, essentially shots from the hip, or take their time and all but guarantee a hit.  Since this is scavenging not hunting, more than food will spawn, so it would be possible with infinite bullets to keep the zombies away and scavenge an infinite amount of supplies.  But since bullets rarely drop and it will take at least a few shots to kill the small number of undead that appear even in ‘Zombie Activity: Low’ areas, a good shot will only get one so far because eventually ammo stores will run out.  Compiled with the fact that if a shambling corpse or one of the terrifying boss monsters should catch the little man he will lose a good chunk of health and most of the supplies he gathered, scavenging really is only a supplement to good resource management.

In addition to being a gloppy coat of carcass paint on an old nostalgic favorite, Organ Trail does add some new things to the formula.  Many towns offer not only a chance to buy new supplies or trade with other survivors, but an opportunity to participate in jobs to earn money or resources.  Primarily these consist of a “get to the finish” game that plays like the scavenging game with an end goal or a shootout with bandits where a stationary guy with a hat will take cover and pop shots at guys with beards in windows.  Equipment upgrades for the station wagon, such as a yard sale sign for the roof to encourage on the road trading, and combat upgrades, like the godly “Faster Bullets”, can also be bought.  Nothing like these expensive augmentations were in the original and they do help to make the game feel fresh on multiple playthroughs as the upgrades slightly change the game.  Additionally, random story events will pop up on the road that tell little stories and have various outcomes depending on what choices players make.  Sadly, just like in FTL, there are only so many of these and after one determines the correct choices, they lose all impact and might as well just be another random berry bush.

There is zero doubt in my mind that if I wanted to, I could look on Google or Bing or whatever and find multiple sites dedicated to the emulation of Apple II games.  But, in order to do that, I would have to forget the first paragraph on this page where I indicated that I already played them to death in grade school, and that most of those games were no good to begin with, The Oregon Trail being a rare exception.  Organ Trail gives an excuse to revisit an older, mostly forgotten, era of personal computer gaming with a new twist and better controls.  The game still has the same bleeps and blorpts and very limited color palette with a black background that one would expect from titles on that system, but it also has a nice soundtrack that splits the difference between chiptunes and a rock track.  After the trip is done successfully once, there are optional achievements that can give a new way to play (i.e. start the game without buying any food, encounter all bosses, etc.).  For those that don’t have memories of games looking like this, it might not pull at the nostalgic heart strings as much, but if you hit the mute button you’ll know what 8-bit PC games used to be like.  This isn’t going to be a game anyone is going to want to play for the next twenty years, but it is a fun, deepish distraction that is well worth the low price point.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Look and feel of an ancient PC game
+ Optional objectives and multiple difficulty settings add replay value
+ Surprisingly haunting at times

Cons:
- Can be very repetitive
- Game is as unfair and random as the original

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for Mac, Linux, and iOS and Android devices
Publisher: The Men Who Wear Many Hats
Developer: The Men Who Wear Many Hats
Release Date: 3/19/2013
Genre: Strategy
Players: 1
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.