Gold Rush! Anniversary review
Being a child of the ‘90s gaming era, I admit I went into playing Gold Rush! Anniversary without ever having touched Sierra’s 1988 original. The most I'd seen of it was a few YouTube playthrough videos and trailers, but I'd always heard it spoken of quite highly so I was eager to see what all the fuss was about. Anniversary is, as far as I can tell, virtually a shot-for-shot remake of the original Gold Rush! with updated graphics that, instead of looking like they're circa 2014, seem closer to something released in 2001. There is no expanded plot, and no additional sound effects or music, though there is now a very annoying narrator and several voice-overs with highly exaggerated western accents.
The plot of Gold Rush! is simple enough to follow easily, but without any sort of underlying mystery or really compelling reason to keep going. You play as Jerrod Wilson, who's waited 11 years for a letter from his brother James who moved out west. When you finally do, he tells you to follow in his footsteps just as the height of the 1800s gold rush news hits New York. Either by wagon or boat, you must head out to find James, hoping to strike it rich. I give the original developers major credit for constructing the plot on such a limited space—the game took up only a megabyte—and having it still be thoughtful. However, with the technology available for the remake, it now seems very flimsy that the entire setup consists of walking into the post office and hearing the postmaster essentially say, “You've been waiting for a letter every day for the past 11 years from your brother who moved out west.” There's no real human aspect and having the premise established this way doesn't inspire any sympathy or warm feelings for the protagonist. Expanding on his dreams and desires and his relationship with his brother could have been done in a careful way that kept to the original feel of the game without being intrusive.
The characters in Gold Rush! are essentially generic plot devices who only have jobs and functions to perform, with no real background or history – and yes, that includes the protagonist Jerrod. Several have names, but no one has any impact or communication with Jerrod except for basic story advancement. None are memorable at all, save for the leader of the westward wagon expedition whom I recall being completely useless at his job, which probably wasn’t intentional on the part of the writers. While in Brooklyn at the beginning of the game, local characters do walk around outside the houses and buildings, only instead of adding to the immersiveness of the game, it’s jarring when you step out of the bank only to have the bank teller walking clear across the screen in front of you.
Sierra, of course, was somewhat infamous for having dead end puzzles in their games, and Gold Rush! was no exception. If you didn't pick up a specific item or tell someone something at a certain point in the game, it was entirely possible to move ahead and then get permanently stuck later on, the only option being to go back in and restart the game or restore a much earlier save. The Anniversary remake promises to "minimize" such dead ends, though to what extent it succeeds I can't entirely be sure. Even without having to worry about game-over events, performing trivial tasks isn't always intuitive, and some of the things the game asks you to do are downright bizarre, such as waiting in front of your house for a real estate agent to come by so you can sell it, rather than being able to actively seek out a real estate office in town. I understand not wanting to change the original spirit of the game, but would it be that bad to add a loop in where Jerrod says “I don't think I can head west yet, I haven't done everything in Brooklyn,” until you have all the items you need?
Graphically, the game is certainly more modern than the very basic pixelated images of the original, but not by much. The new graphics lack enough texture and quality to make them lifelike; for example, the horses’ tails all look like one big block of tail, not like individual strands meshed together. Surprisingly, the detail on the cave walls when you're looking for gold is probably the best and most detailed background, unlike the stagnant river water and the bland walls of Sutter's Fort. The character detail isn’t that great either, but you can't zoom in to see any of them very well anyway. In some shots, a good third of the screen is wasted by foreground structures that are dimmed out as if you are looking into the room through a cutaway. The animation also feels cheap, with stilted, awkward walk cycles that are automatically stopped instead of rerouted if Jerrod walks into someone or something. For 2014, or even 2004, it looks very dated.
In keeping with its adherence to the original, Anniversary uses the same sound design as the original Gold Rush!, which means there's either moments of loud ambient noise such as birds chirping, or several screens without any background sounds at all, both of which are equally jarring. There were several times during my playthrough that I stopped to check and make sure I hadn't accidentally hit the mute button on my computer. On the other hand, god forbid there's any sort of short musical score while the narrator is trying to talk, because it absolutely drowns out his voice and the imbalanced audio mixing forces you to read the subtitles instead. This game could have really benefited from either a more consistent mix of background noises for overall ambiance or from a background score that meshed with the sounds that were already there. The instrumentation at least sounds new; while the game features the same score and direction as the original, the music quality is crisp and clear.
Another significant difference in the remake is the addition of voice acting. After about five minutes of the voice-overs, however, I was tempted to break out a copy of the original. The western accents are strained and over-exaggerated, and almost all of the dialogue sounds wooden and stilted. There isn't enough correct emphasis on words, and it sounds like the voice actors were given the lines to read straight off a piece of paper with absolutely no context—or worse, given the wrong context. It sounds awkward and unconvincing, and it does no favors to the simple, purely plot-advancing dialogue. The actual voices do seem to at least fit the characters themselves, so that’s a plus.
One of the best features of the remake is that it offers the original command line gameplay option for those who prefer the more traditional experience to point-and-click. I did try out the command line once or twice, but as I'm not very familiar with that I decided the safer bet was to stick with the mouse. The point-and-click mechanics are alright, except that hotspots are not clearly identified, which is made worse by the fact that when you click on something you have a choice of two possible actions, either to look at what you’re clicking on or interact with it. It is annoyingly easy to click and just look at something rather than walk there, and every single mis-click is accompanied by Jerrod's trite observation along the lines of “It's just prairie grass” or something to that effect. It got really aggravating after a while, and I would say it is a design weakness that should have been addressed, as I can't imagine I'm the only clumsy clicker with this problem.
There are very few individual puzzles in Gold Rush! that I can think of. Instead, the game was built more to be one giant puzzle in itself. As long as you have the items you need, it isn’t hard to figure out what to do, as there aren’t many options. While I admire the interconnectivity and the fact that, realistically, all of your actions are built upon one another, as a gamer it still feels uninspired. Even a few simple puzzles wouldn’t have gone amiss; just something to break up the otherwise straightforward layout of the game.
One of the best features of the original Gold Rush! that remains the best for Anniversary is the fact that you can choose how to travel to California—by wagon, around Cape Horn or through the Panama Canal. Unfortunately, the two options that get you there by boat are only available if you know what you're doing and are savvy enough to get your house sold and a ticket bought before the news of the gold rush hits New York. This feature does add a limited replayability to the game, though the rest of the adventure once you reach Sutter's Fort is still the same.
It can take as little as 90 minutes to complete the game if you know what you’re doing, and unless you get permanently stuck on any leftover dead ends, it should only take about three hours to finish even if you’re new to it. While the original Gold Rush! seems like it must have been a noteworthy game for its time, with a lot of promise for a remake, I can't recommend Anniversary to anyone except ardent fans of the original, as it's really not that enjoyable 25 years later. A loyal remake to a fault, very little has been updated for the better, and even the few graphical and voice-over enhancements fall well short of expectations for 2014. It’s a shame, as the game clearly has the potential for a more in-depth story with a lot of heart and soul and less frustrating gameplay.
Note: The review originally stated that all of the original dead ends remained, but has since been updated to reflect the correct information.
If you’re a hardcore fan of the Gold Rush! original, there might be some value in picking up Anniversary on sale. If you’re not, don’t waste your hard-earned riches.