From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week, can an enterprising soul make a fortune, or will the vagaries of adventure gaming in 1988 take their toll?
Gold Rush! doesn't sound like it's going to be one of the odder games from the Sierra On-Line catalogue; the company that after all gave us games like Manhunter and Leisure Suit Larry 2. It actually just sounds like, well, a pretty good idea. What better historical adventure could there be than leaving one's life behind to take an all-or-nothing gamble on the California Gold Rush, a time of great change and great fortune? The Oregon Trail was a staple at schools for a reason—the call of the frontier still loud and booming, even in an era of planes, trains and automobiles, and many other memorable comedy movies as well. But then you play it. And in a word... whooooooooooooooooooooo!
The version of Gold Rush! Classic on Steam is a fairly heavy price reduction on what the original creators were charging, starting at $19.95 for a copy sent in a brown envelope and $59.95 for a "Collector's Edition" in a handmade wooden box with a fairly ambitious goal:
"My mother grew up in a large eighteen-room house that she shared with her extended family. She was an only child, the last of a family line that stretched back to the Mayflower. The house had been in the family for many generations and needless to say was filled with innumerable family treasures. Upon my grandmother's death, my mother being the sole heir, inherited the family home and all of its contents. Much has changed since those days when I could walk through that old house in Vermont, but when I get the chance I still enjoy looking at material that came from there. Some of the things I appreciate the most are the many wooden boxes my ancestors kept and used to store small items that were special to them. It is my hope that the wooden boxes I made for the Collector's Edition of California Gold Rush will be kept and used in the same way."
Indeed, and no doubt right beside them will be pencils lovingly stored in the head of Master Chief, and a pair of zombie boobs turned into a hat-stand. You'd think the helmet would do the job, but no. That would be tacky.
Reading about Gold Rush! you find almost as much mythologising of the game as the game tries to do about its subject. The description on the original website claims, "With three separate routes from New York to California, it's like having three full adventures in one package!" Which is just adorable, as we'll see, while the Steam page claims to be offering "the classic style of the original game, which delighted millions of gamers in the eighties." Millions? Hmm. In the words of Wikipedia, citation needed. King's Quest 5 in 1990 was a mega-hit with just 500,000, and Gold Rush! wasn't even close to its level. Its tech was old, its design pretty weak in many ways, and most importantly, there was no puzzle where you hit a yeti in the face with a pie. Not even one. Talk about a poooooooisonous disappointment!
But, to give it credit, it was an interesting game, a pretty hefty one for the time, and a better looking adventure than its engine usually managed. Especially during the opening New York section and this actually pretty cool intro previewing the journey. (Ignoring the jingo-jangle bullshit of "A great AMERICAN hero!" of course, since Jerrod does literally nothing heroic during the entire story.)
The opening of the game is really weird. It takes place before the Gold Rush begins... specifically, about 15 minutes before, in which time our not-so-heroic Jerrod has to decide to seek his fortune, make his plans, arrange his passage, and get the hell out of Dodge before news that some people at the other end of the United States have found gold causes all prices to skyrocket and make the trip untenable. I have had sandwiches that last longer than Jerrod's plans. Good ones, mind. Really good ones, with bacon and lettuce and salt and vinegar crisps in a large baguette that... no, no, I'm drifting.
Preparing isn't as easy as it might be, because this is a Sierra game and Sierra's motto was "WE HATE YOU AND HOPE YOU DIE A HORRIBLE, HORRIBLE DEATH". A vital object you need at the start is a bank statement, and you'd think that would be in your house's stylish roll-top desk. Haha, no. It's hidden on the outside of the lid, which has to be rolled down first. Because that totally makes sense. This reveals a random bank account number and tells you that you have $200. Then you have to look at a photo album full of apparent memories, in which there's an essential photo you need to collect so your brother will "know it's you" and then, filled with a sense of nostalgia for your childhood home, the place where so many memories were made, your connection to your parents...
...just type SELL HOUSE and give it to the first guy who comes along for $850.
And why do all of this? Because of a letter from Jerrod's brother, Jake, written in obvious code, which you're supposed to read and then realise you need to peel back the adhesive stamp on the letter to find a flake of gold that proves he's struck it rich. Or possibly just had a very embarrassing discovery of iron pyrite, leading to an awkward moment when Jerrod shows up and says "Hello, brother! I sold my house and all my worldly possessions to get here! Why is 'here' not our new mansion, but a muddy ditch with a sign saying 'WILL SERVICE YOUR HORSE SEXUALLY WHILE YOU WATCH: $1'?"
There are some really cute details in this part of the game. If you walk on the grass, you get ticketed by the cops and lose a point each time. There are always people wandering past, along with carts that will kill you, classic Sierra style. It's possible to head up to the graveyard to have Jerrod say goodbye to his parents. There are some newspaper clippings that add a bit of detail to the story (Jake being falsely accused of a crime and having to leave town), and incidental details like a a journalist at the paper Jerrod works for before quitting alternating between sitting upright in his chair and flopping backwards, and the bank teller ambling around and getting his money. Most of the scenes contribute nothing but making Brooklyn feel bustling in comparison to the quieter remainder of the game, but they do a great job of it.
But who wants to sit around in New York when they could be finding gold?
The most ambitious part of Gold Rush is that it offers those three different ways to get from Brooklyn to the next part of the game, Sutter's Fort, each with essentially one puzzle. By land, you join with a mining company and buy animals. Going via Panama means packing a mosquito net and having some adventures in the jungle. If you opt to go via Cape Horne, you have to do a bit of fishing and remember to bring fruit to fight off scurvy.
Buying fruit isn't as easy as it sounds, because once the Gold Rush is declared, some of the shopkeepers decide to head to California and leave your walking corpse to feed the flies. As you have no chance of buying a ticket on the ship afterwards though, you end up in this weird position where you have to buy fruit to survive the journey before buying the ticket for the journey, and in a game with a tight time limit, it's only the ability to reload back that saves the day. Grr.
Luckily the hardware store owner though is more sensible; like many people in Seattle, opting to stay quite comfortable where he is and simply sell tools to dream-faced idiots. It's not as exciting, but it ended up being far more profitable for most.
Like just about everything you might want to buy in Brooklyn, it's not relevant here. You lose your inventory midway through the game and the sellers later on only accept gold, so most of the money in your pocket ends up being completely worthless.
Every route is dangerous, and offers some scope to die horribly. This was a Sierra game. Death is what they did. Gold Rush! took it a step further than most, for reasons I'll get to in a second. Mostly though, they feel about as thrilling as the actual trip would, with endless updates on everything from how sick the passengers are to what scenery you're passing, to horror stories about going around Cape Horn, to occasionally even seeing something.
The fact that you don't get to do anything does bring serious mockery to the claim "With three separate routes from New York to California, it's like having three full adventures in one package!" Maybe, "It's like reading three Wikipedia pages!" or "It's a bit disappointing, but understandable given the limitations of floppy disks in the late '80s!"
But, that step. While there are a couple of things you have to do on the journey and a couple that you can do, sometimes you'll find yourself arriving on the other end of it and simply dropping dead of cholera. "There was nothing you could do," the game states. "Sometimes terrible things happen!"
Wow, am I glad this never became a pattern for gaming. Imagine playing Mass Effect, when suddenly Shepard has a heart-attack and collapses dead. Or getting almost to the end of Dark Souls 2, only the last boss is cancer. Or in Call of Duty, everything is going great until suddenly the world is hit by a meteor and all life is extinguished. There's realism, and there's "Go **** yourself." And maybe Gold Rush! could have gotten away with it, if not for what follows. But, spoiler, it can't. It's simply the game where occasionally you're eaten by an alligator "hiding just out of sight" because screw you, that's why.
(The realism angle is particularly painful when heading through the jungle, complete with not entirely PC compatible encounters with natives who show up to yell, ahem, "Hungo bingo, gram a zumba. Humba whaa ratza sniffa a gonga!" And there are puzzles involving killer snakes and fire ants. Ahem.)
Survive the trip though, and you end up at Sutter's Fort, with—and here's another bit of credit for it—a genuinely funny gimmick. Up to this point, all of the in-game text has been very prim and proper, even discussing death. "The dreaded disease of cholera has knocked on your door. Your misery is over." "A man has to do what a man has to do." "This is one of the first adhesive stamps ever." Once in California, that narrator is booted out in favour of a grizzled prospector drawl, and descriptions like "Yer inside Sutter's Fort. Take a real good look 'round" and "A never endin' stream of wagons use this road." It's not fully consistent, forgotten quite often while wandering around the outside of the fort, but it's actually pretty atmospheric and one of many details that show that however popular Gold Rush was, it was a game put together with a lot of love and an above average amount of craft even by Sierra standards. I respect that. Now, let's mock it a bit more.
I say that because at this point, Gold Rush politely peels back the covers and shits the bed with the force of a hundred curried tacos. You'd think that simply hunting for gold would be enough to carry things, but no, it decides at this point that it wants mystery and conspiracy. Bad idea.
It begins when you go to a graveyard and find your dad has two of them, one pointedly labelled "PSALM 23". This is a clue to open up a bible that you conveniently got from a preacher on the way here, which reveals the capitalised words GREEN PASTURES and an envelope full of holes that reveals the secret message OR21OOM. All of which reveals the secret message ROOM 21 at a nearby hotel called GREEN PASTURES. Or ROOM 12. Or simply THE DESIGNERS NEED A SLAP. That last one, definitely.
And it gets even sillier once you go there, because as much as I understand Jake wants to keep his discovery on the down-low, finding him involves the kind of bullshit espionage that even Operation Stealth would wince at. It involves a secret passage in the nearby hotel, hidden behind a cannon and a false fireplace. It involves a trained mule that knows the way to Jake's gold claim. And most bizarrely, it involves sending a message to him...
I need a moment to bang my head on the table here...
...by finding a trained bird in the hotel, which you give a family photo to, which it understands as meaning "Take this to Jake", and then brings a message back with yet more cryptic bullshit instead of, say, directions or an apology. The trip to California suggests a game with much research behind it. What happens when you arrive suggests someone decided to start smoking it. This time, that bullshit is finding a mule that knows its way, which you have to acquire by finding another mule, branding it with your brother's mark so that you can pull a switcharoo and have it lead you to his claim.
And how do you afford that second mule?
...wait for it... because some games demand this many ellipses...
...by finding gold. Of course you do. I'm not going to say Jerrod's brother might have slightly over-estimated him, but, well, that is exactly what I'm saying. Presenting Evidence A.
And while we're on the subject, here's one of the smuggest deaths Sierra ever created.
For reasons that really don't matter, you have to get out of the hotel by climbing the ledge. Note Window Guy.
If you walk past, then this happens.
Well, maybe it was just an accident?
Luckily, the quest to buy the things you need to get rich turns out to be surprisingly easy, thanks to the fact that, despite many people panning for gold in the area, it is not in fact left drier than a skeleton in the desert.
Unluckily, finding gold is about as boring as actually panning for gold, only without actually getting any gold out of it. Cue much typing of the word "pan" and hitting of F3, while avoiding other would-be rich folk who will otherwise call down the wrath of God, Zeus, and Quetzacoatl on your ass for claim jumping. And occasionally there are robbers too. But! Before too long you can have well over $850 in your pocket, and you can buy a house from a crazy person for that! And then you realise that the characters don't actually care how much gold you have as long as you have some , so all that proto-farming was entirely pointless. Grr. Grr. Grr.
On the plus side, if you do die, you get a fun little interactive sequence where you get to choose your last words and have Jerrod defiantly bellow them to the waiting crowd. Like, for instance:
Death is arguably better than the next stage of the journey though, as armed with a bit of gold, a mule, and some basic prospecting gear, Jerrod finally tracks his brother to a small outpost deep in the woods, and a literal goldmine found in...
Cue a trip through what can only be describes as the Shitmines of Hatred, a pixel-perfection-demanding maze lit by limited lantern light and full of ladders that are more dangerous than a jockstrap full of scorpions. Which ends on, of all the crazy things, the suggestion that we "Try it without the lantern sometime!"
But, finally the horror ends and it's time for Jerrod to meet up with his brother for the ultimate discovery—a vein of pure gold known only to them, so exciting that all they can do is dance. It looks a little bit like a party came out of Wetherspoons and threw up down all the walls, but no, it's riches! Golden oil, Texas.... gold.
And so they dance happily and throw their heads to the skies and praise their good fortune, with the game ending before they inevitably get mugged by the army of bandits in the forests outside and either have it all taken away or the location of the mine tortured out of them. A mine which, incidentally, it doesn't seem like either of them actually have a claim on, which means it's probably just going to get confiscated by the local authorities and used to pay for new roads.
Truly, a romantic vision of the future.
As I said at the start, Gold Rush is a weird, weird little adventure game. Its heart is in the right place, but it never feels sure what it is. It's not really a story about discovering gold, because it's Jake rather than Jerrod who does that, and it's already happened by the time the game starts. Nor does it seem to have any interest in exploring the life of a prospector and the potential challenges associated with that, choosing instead to fill the second half with bullshit puzzles and mazes and leave the actual hunt for gold as nothing more than dipping a pan into a stream.
Certainly, the journeys would have benefitted from being far more interactive, as tricky as that would have been with the storage space at the time, especially since The Oregon Trail had been on sale for about three years at this point. It's also weird how different the style is between the two halves, from the luxuriously detailed real-time bits in Brooklyn to the much spottier and less enthusiastic design in California; things like Sutter's Fort having about a billion different screens but only three of them actually useful, and none of the same sense of life.
But, weird is always interesting and often fun, and Gold Rush is both. But compared to the Quest for Glory series? Not that interesting, and not that much fun. It's unfortunate that the remake aimed to update the original rather than using it as a jumping-off point, because the core of it has a fair amount of potential. If mixed with other genres, like the current love of roguelikes, and with enough storage space to make the most of its journeys.
To finish, here's a compilation of all the ways the trip can go horribly, horribly wrong.