Would you be able to abandon your everyday life?
"Gold Rush", along with the "Manhunter" (mini)series and the AGI version of "King's Quest IV", was one of the last AGI games. Therefore it already has decent graphics - it still has resolution-related limitations, but certainly isn't as ugly as some of the earliest Sierra adventures. When first looking at the screenshots from this game, I didn't even notice it was AGI...
An aspect very often praised is the liberty the game offers, more precisely in its middle part - three routes you can use to get to California. It doesn't, however, have any influence on later gameplay - the only difference from the player's point of view is that the Panama route yields five points more. However on all routes you will get a Bible (which is later used to solve a code left by Jake) and on all routes you will lose all your money anyway, apart from a golden coin cleverly hidden in a pocket.
Some parts of the game are timed - the gold rush starts 14 minutes into the game and some things have to be done before, otherwise you won't be able to afford the trip to California since everyone wants to strike it rich and transport prices skyrocket. However, when you know what to do it isn't difficult to complete all necessary tasks - you can only have problems if you decide to read all epitaphs in the cemetery, as you can do in a few other games (I recall "King's Quest IV" and the AGD Interactive enhanced remake of "King's Quest II"). They aren't as poetic, chilling ("Reader, take warning by my fate, / Lest you should rue your case too late") or sometimes actually funny ("John Brown is filling his last cavity") like in "King's Quest IV", but still interesting to read. However, the timer can be cheated in an extremely simple way - by changing speed settings to something other than "Normal". It's often hard not to do it because character movement is so slow at normal speed...
However, what I find really captivating in this game is its emotional value. While still remaining a relatively simple adventure game (in terms of storyline), it offers a possibility to identify with the main character. Underneath his well-organized life he is hiding a deep yearning for his dead parents and lost brother. It makes his sudden decision to go to California more plausible - just one letter from his brother, awaited for many years, is able to make him abandon everything.
Despite its emotional depth, the game is clearly lacking in terms of dialog. I don't think it would have been difficult to add some more... This part stops being plausible at once - such as in the scene when Jerrod suddenly quits his job and doesn't seem to offer any explanation.
Like many other Sierra games, "Gold Rush" also has its share of annoying random deaths. When sailing the Cape Horn route for the first time, I had to restore the game about five times since "we" finally managed to cross the treacherous waters. Sometimes you need to restore the game to a point before the departure from Brooklyn and then, when you have already seen vistas and read messages which appear during the journey, it would have been better if you could skip yet more of those parts. Non-interactive sequences on the ship or wagon last for several minutes - of course they aren't completely boring, they have some educational value, but after some time they aren't interesting anymore and strongly limit the game's replay value.
On the Cape Horn route there is a short scene when the timer really becomes a pain in the... The ship is running low on supplies and Jerrod catches some fish with his makeshift equipment. However, he has to gather all items and start fishing before he is too exhausted to do anything and it means you really have to be ultra-quick. It's not that easy in an AGI game which doesn't pause when you type...
The timer could have also been done better. The game would be more realistic and plausible if checking the timer wouldn't show time spent playing the game, but instead a time of day - for example if the game's beginning would be 4:15 pm and the gold rush started at half past 4.
Unfortunately, the game isn't bug-free - at least in my version it had a big bug which prevented me from completing the game shortly before the ending. The game just crashed shortly after entering the mine. However, at least in my version this bug can fortunately be bypassed by running the game in Scumm VM and not DOSbox. Scumm VM also seems to implement its own solutions in some way, which for example means that you have more save slots available.
The Bottom Line
Any adventure game satisfies some emotional needs by making the player identify more or less strongly with a character put in a situation which he or she is not likely ever to experience. "Gold Rush" appeals to a yearning which remains present in culture in some way: "if I could abandon all my life, start everything anew, just pursue adventure instead of living my boring everyday life...". Jerrod Wilson does it indeed in a fairly realistic game: he starts the day as a smart journalist in Brooklyn and finishes it on a ship or wagon bound to a faraway destination. It's not easy to imagine being in such a situation and I think many people wouldn't dare make such a decision - the game lets us do it through a "proxy" when we aren't likely to be put before such a choice.