Sally Has Diphtheria: Is Oregon Trail the Greatest Video Game of All Time?

Caulk the wagon and float it

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Before video games were more addicting than hard drugs, they were once designed for children. They were fun--not the blood-splattering, rocket-launching, hooker-beating type of fun--but the type of fun that even a mother could get behind and be convinced was educational. This week's profile of the creators behind The Oregon Trail describes how the game was created by a history teacher for his classroom. Created in 1971, the first version was played on a teletype--a rudimentary computer with no monitor--that spat out commands like "How much do you want to spend on your oxen team?" and the results of your decisions on a roll of paper. The Oregon Trail was basically a receipt, and a strange one at that.

Later it grew into a real game for a computer with a monitor--legitimately fun, as anyone with foggy memories of the First Gulf War can tell you, and maybe even educational. How else would any of us know what "fording" a river is? The importance of having a spare axle in your wagon? How to hunt buffalo? What to do if a relative has cholera? [Correct answer: save your food supplies--he's done-for.] The fact that we've all lost a digital relative to the ravages of the trail might be the one thing that binds us as a generation. The 80's and early 90's saw some pretty great games that make it easy to reminiscence about the days when games were definitely simpler, and maybe life was too. Zelda, Pac-Man, Carmen Sandiego, Sonic the Hedgehog, Civilization II. Was Oregon Trail the greatest game of them all?

  • The Long Dusty Trail: "Forty years and ten iterations later, the Oregon Trail has sold over 65 million copies worldwide, becoming the most widely distributed educational game of all time. Market research done in 2006 found that almost 45 percent of parents with young children knew Oregon Trail, despite the fact that it largely disappeared from the market in the late '90s," writes Jessica Lussenhop in her profile of the game's creators in City Pages.
  • Yeah But What About Mario?  "The original Super Mario Bros. was the best-selling video game of all time, until Wii Sports surpassed it, two years ago—and Miyamoto was one of the leaders of the team that came up with the Wii. The Super Mario Bros. franchise has sold more than two hundred and forty million units, and that’s not including Mario Kart, Mario Party, and other offshoots, which have sold tens of millions more," says Nick Paumgarten in his New Yorker profile of Mario mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto.
  • Did You Know Zelda Was Named After Fitzgerald's Wife?  Old Wizard has two different versions of the game at 1 and 11 out of 100.
Zelda was the first game to introduce the idea of a more free-flowing gaming experience where you could move wherever you want in a non-sequential were overcome with a vastness not heard of until this game. There were so many areas to explore and so many different ways to conquer this game. The story line was a classic fantasy story line with a princess who needed to be saved, pieces of a “holy grail” (triforce) that needed to be recovered, and an increasing of sword strength the more you built up your courage....Zelda 1 introduced the adventure game to the platform system that eventually ran the coin-op industry out of town.
  • SimCity's Pretty Awesome says Certification Map, a teaching website, at least in terms of 'educational' games. "Perhaps the best part of the game, once you have taken all this time painstakingly crafting a shining city on a hill, is summoning disasters. A giant dinosaur is at your beck and call to strike some fear into the hearts of your citizens should you be that type of a leader. With great power comes great responsibility...only one of the invaluable lessons taught to us in SimCity."
  • Tecmo Bowl for NES  "For weeks after Christmas 1991, I was the cool kid on the block. I got Tecmo Super Bowl as a gift. Arguably the greatest video game ever, it was Madden before there was a Madden," says Nick Mathews on the Chicago Tribune's website. "It was the first football game to have licensing privileges, allowing all of the NFL players names -- except, mysteriously, for amazing Eagles QB Randall Cunningham. Sure, you could only play the 1991 NFL season. But you played it over and over and over again. There was Video Game Bo -- the greatest player your hands could ever control -- the pink end zones, 90-yard passes on the fly, robust stat tracking. Just an absolute classic."
  • Street Fighter II? "To this day, Street Fighter II remains one of the premier one-on-one versus videogames in existence," asserts an IGN writeup. "In fact, we still play it daily. Not only did Street Fighter II kick-start a genre which flooded the early '90s with copycat clones, but it also established many genre gameplay standards that persist even to this day....With a simple premise and subtly deep design, Street Fighter II established itself as a cultural icon for the youth of the time and easily deserves a top spot on our list." It comes in at number 8 on IGN's 100 Greatest Games.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.