Did you ever wonder why they call this genre "adventure", when so many games are more about conversation and puzzle solving than any actual adventuring? Fortunately, there are some games that manage to create the excitement of daring quests, including a title hidden among Sierra's earliest games. Gold Rush! is a tale of cunning and bravery that takes adventure to the wild and unexplored frontier of America in the 1840s.
"The Gold Rush is on! Sell your land, pack your bags, and grab the next ride out, because fortune lies just 2,500 miles away..."
The game's protagonist is Jerrod Wilson, a newspaper editor living in Brooklyn Heights, New York. As the game begins, the year is 1848 -- just when rumors of gold in California are reaching the East. Jerrod receives a letter from his long lost brother Jake, which confirms that gold has indeed been found in the West. Dissatisfied with his dull life and daily job, Jerrod gives in to his itch for adventure and joins the rush for riches.
From a historical point of view, those must have been interesting times to live in. When California Governor Richard Mason announced that "there is more gold in the country drained by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers than would pay the cost of the late war with Mexico a hundred times over", people abandoned their homes and families everywhere, hoping to strike it rich in the alleged "land of plenty". Thousands journeyed by land or by sea to reach their destination. As they started out, few realized that only the hardiest and most resilient would survive the hazards and dangers of the long voyage.
I am not overly familiar with American history, but I can credit this game for my lessons about the Gold Rush! era. Its narration is educational and serious in a way that reminds me of documentaries on the Discovery Channel. As you move through the game, new areas, situations, and actions are regularly described in their historical context.
Although no surprise for a game released in 1988, Gold Rush is definitely showing its age. Sierra's AGI (Adventure Game Interpreter) engine was used to create the game. This means 16-color graphics, a 160x200 pixel resolution, and an interface that requires typing verbal commands (a task now hated by some and loved by others). No mouse support is available, and the rare pieces of music present are PC-Speaker sound.
Considering the limited technology available, however, the game's graphics are actually quite beautiful and outstandingly detailed. From oft-visited areas such as Brooklyn Heights and California's forests, to the various scenery you only get to see briefly during your travels, the artists have done an excellent job of creating a lively and atmospheric environment.
The many characters that inhabit the world of Gold Rush! are also vividly animated. Jerrod changes clothing and grows a beard, gold miners are everywhere in California, and in Brooklyn Heights the various shopkeepers and other residents walk the streets continuously. Not only that, but they can all be talked to. In this area, GR! was ahead of its time, as no other AGI game includes this many conversations. Mind you, gamers that want their adventures filled with interactive dialogue probably won't be satisfied. Every character has meaningful (and at times many) things to say, but it is presented mostly through monologues, which establishes a certain distance from the characters. The method for engaging in mutual dialogue is simple but efficient. When giving the 'Talk To...' command, a box pops up displaying what the character says, similar to the game's response to a 'Look At...' command.
Another aspect in which Gold Rush! was ahead of its contemporaries is replayability. There are no less than three expeditions available that ultimately allow the player to reach California, making this game one of the first graphic adventures to have multiple paths leading to the ending. Two routes involve taking ships southward. Either you can go all the way around Cape Horn or travel to Panama. The Panama Canal wasn't around at the time, so of course then you'll need to travel through the jungle on foot. There's also the overland route which may seem to be the most logical choice since you travel directly to the West. It's neither the shortest nor the easiest route, however, as you'll take wagon trains and face problems such as lack of water. Each path has its unique troubles and dangers you need to overcome by solving puzzles.
In some adventure games, the puzzles are only there to stall progress and make the gameplay longer. In Gold Rush!, you are presented with real and significant challenges that you need to triumph over in order to reach your goal. While some puzzles are difficult (perhaps even too difficult for the inexperienced), they are all integrated in the plot and reflect realistic circumstances the actual adventurers had to face in those days.
I'll try to give some examples without spoiling the game too much. While preparing for your journey in Brooklyn Heights, you need to sell your house in order to raise the money you need to afford your voyage. As you travel around Cape Horn, you may need to assemble a fishing rod before you starve to death. If you take the stagecoach to the west, you need to buy horses that will survive a 2,000 mile journey. All are situations the real gold seekers may have had to deal with, so there is nothing arbitrary about these challenges.
Not all puzzles in GR! are of great quality, however. Some lead to inevitable dead ends, though you won't know it at the time. For example, it is imperative that you buy the right goods needed on your journey before you leave Brooklyn, as it could mean instant death later on if you choose unwisely. Time triggered puzzles may also annoy the player that doesn't expect them. Once you arrive in Sacramento, for instance, there is only a limited time for you to take the stagecoach to Sutter's Fort. If you don't act quickly enough, the stagecoach leaves and you'll be stuck in Sacramento forever.
Some of these timed elements are an interesting addition to the game. After spending a certain amount of time in Brooklyn Heights, the rumor that gold has been found in California will be confirmed. This means that costs of transportation to the west will skyrocket, while the house prices drop. Other than making one of the three routes unavailable if you act too slowly, it doesn't influence the rest of the game at all. Instead, it adds to the feeling of realism present in Gold Rush!.
The actual story of GR! mostly serves as a simple vessel for delivering the educational and puzzle aspects. Weak plots were common in the early days of graphical adventures. However, there is more to this game than traveling to California and finding gold. Jerrod's personal history is described through narration, similar to how the factual history is described. Other than gold, Jerrod is also driven to California to seek his brother, who disappeared years ago after the death of their parents.
New goals are presented throughout the game, driving Gold Rush! onward and making it an adventure that maintains its excitement until the end. While most AGI games are shorter than newer games, GR! is relatively long, since there are many things to do and places to visit. Still, adventurers that are experienced in puzzle solving may complete each path through the game in a couple of hours.
Due to the simple nature of the AGI engine, modern computers should have no problem playing this game. There is one bug in GR! that involves the 'Fast' speed setting, which causes the game's clock to stop running. This prevents timed events from occurring, such as mail being delivered to you at the post office. You'll probably be able to recognize situations in which a timed trigger is required, so in those cases, temporarily change the game's speed setting to 'Slow' or 'Normal'.
If you don't mind the presence of a few dead end puzzles, dated graphics, and a typing interface, try to pick up Gold Rush! somewhere. A special collector's edition (under the name California Gold Rush) is still available for purchase. The unique puzzles and accurate look at an important historical event in a detailed and enjoyable setting create one of the most "adventurous" adventure games available, and a worthy experience that continues to stand the test of time.