The Oregon Trail Boxed Set (Collection)
1985's The Oregon Trail wasn't the only computer game to put you in a historical scenario and have you make life-or-death choices, but it's one of the best. The urgency of the narrative belies the game's rudimentary graphics, fully engaging one's imagination to trigger fear of failure. There's a real sense of calamity when an alert pops up that one of your oxen is injured or a child in your wagon team has died. This is what Houghton Mifflin Harcourt attempted to recreate beginning in 2018 with its Oregon Trail gamebooks, an homage to a computer game that lingered in pop culture zeitgeist for decades. Could author Jesse Wiley recapture the original feeling?
Like the Worst-Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure gamebooks, The Race to Chimney Rock includes a research primer at the back of the book and encourages studying it before heading out on the Oregon Trail. A pioneer in the 1850s United States needs to be informed in order to survive travel across hundreds of miles of frontier land. You, your parents, and your little siblings Hannah and Samuel are optimistic as you prepare to start toward the Oregon Territory from Independence, Missouri. Your home in Kentucky was fine, but Oregon promises free land and exciting opportunities. The road there is rough, but you're growing into a responsible young person, and your parents are ready to let you make some of the decisions. The first one is big: should the group of wagons you're traveling with depart from Independence in April, or May? Will you risk there not being enough grass in the early going to feed your oxen, or winter arriving before you reach your destination?
Myriad adventures await on the Trail. You might become friends with your wagon team's captain, Caleb, and his kids, or end up feuding with them. In packing your family's wagon, should you prioritize furniture or food, wagon repair items or luxury goods for trading? You'll meet Native American and white guides on the Trail, but who sincerely wishes to help and who is running a con job? Snakes and bears are serious threats, and running afoul of local Native Americans is another danger. Walking beside your full wagon for fifteen miles every day is exhausting, but you must reach your checkpoint, Chimney Rock, in a timely manner; a permissive rest schedule will put you too far off pace to recover, and you have hundreds of miles still to go after Chimney Rock. Success seems impossible at times, but you'll make it if your luck holds.
Only one story path gets you to Chimney Rock, so consider every decision carefully. Your family dreams of prospering in the Oregon Territory, but there are lovely valleys and small towns between Missouri and the West Coast; any of them would be a decent place to build a life. If the choice becomes either dying on the Trail or giving up on migration and settling in the Midwest, you might have to modify your dream. The Race to Chimney Rock is less evocative than the 1985 computer game, and the random results of some choices are frustrating, but the story has moments that reflect the chilling side of the original game; a graphic ending where your leg must be amputated is one of them. Imperfect as it is, I like this book, and will be back for episode two, Danger at the Haunted Gate.
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