Who in the world is Carmen Sandiego?
The Story of the Coolest and Smartest Thief in All Videogames History
Published: 23 June 2020, 2:04 pm
Who in the world is Carmen Sandiego? It's okay if you sang that in your head, I did too. It brings back memories of pursuing a felonious red-clad woman all around the world. Carmen Sandiego came onto the scene in 1985, making her debut in "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" The game was aimed at teaching geography in a fun and engaging way. The Carmen Sandiego series does an excellent job of making you forget that they are intended to be educational. They are also fun and challenging adventure games.
From these humble beginnings, an entire gaming and television franchise bloomed and flourished. Owned initially by Broderbund, the franchise has since changed hands to The Learning Company, who keeps the franchise alive today.
The actual concept of Carmen Sandiego was cultivated in an unconventional setting. Gary Carlston of Brøderbund Software would hatch the idea while reminiscing about sharing a bedroom with his brother Doug as children and bouncing trivia questions off of one another. They decided to make a videogame where players could test their knowledge of geography and history. The development team was made of Gary himself, game designer Lauren Elliott, programmer Dane Bigham, plus Gene Portwood and Ed Bernstein, respectively head of programming and head of the art department at Brøderbund.
The initial design of the game did not at all involve the character Carmen Sandiego or even crime. The first version would be called Six Crowns of Henry VIII and would take place solely in Britain. After some consideration, the team realized that this narrow setting for the game wouldn't do them much good when trying to break into the American gaming market. So, the game evolved to include the well-known concept by putting the players in pursuit of a gang of thieves stealing valuable items from around the globe. The mastermind of this gang of thieves was a woman called Carmen Sandiego.
Though there is some debate as to who actually came up with the character Carmen Sandiego, we can all agree that she was the icing on the cake. Broderbund did have a small controversy surrounding this choice when the Hispanic community felt that the character of Carmen Sandiego would cause people to associate her Hispanic last name with criminal activities. So Broderbund decided that "Sandiego" was Carmen's married name; her maiden name was "Sondberg," and she was actually Swedish. This information was news to me, and now I'm curious who Mr. Sandiego is/was. Yet another mystery surrounding the crimson criminal.
Going back to the 1985 release of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? the game introduced the notorious leader of the Villainous International League of Evil (V.I.L.E.) and her crew of dastardly henchmen. You are a detective in the ACME Detective Agency trying to climb your way up the ranks to master detective. To achieve this goal, you must quickly and accurately solve the cases that are assigned to you and apprehend the bad guys. During each case, it's up to you to talk to any witnesses, gather clues, and figure out where the thieves have fled to. To actually arrest the bad guys, you have to build a warrant against them.
Every case you solve gives you a new rank in the agency, and if you manage to catch Ms. Sandiego herself, you will reach the ultimate status. Should you incorrectly follow the clues or run out of time, the bad guys will slip right out of your grasp. The title did exceptionally well on the market and sold more than 4 million copies. Not bad for an educational game. This also spawned a television show years later in 1991 that would run for five seasons.
Not wanting to rest on its laurels, Broderbund came out with Where in the U.S.A. is Carmen Sandiego? the following year in 1986. Though shrinking the scope of the game from the world to just the United States, this sequel is just as challenging and educational as its predecessor. It also utilizes the same interface as well as requiring you to build warrants to arrest the criminals.
The sequel was successful and highly reviewed follow up to the original. Keeping to the regional scope, this was followed up in 1988 by Where in Europe is Carmen Sandiego?
The first few Carmen Sandiego games were focused on teaching geography, but in 1989 they shifted the subject of focus to include history. Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? is a trek through time to capture Carmen and crew. Much like the previous games, you have to talk to witnesses, gather clues, build your warrant, and arrest the V.I.L.E. criminals. The game was wildly popular and even spawned a television game show in 1996 that ran on PBS for around 2 years.
The history and time travel theme proved popular enough that another C.S. game involving time was also released in 1991, Where in America's Past Is Carmen Sandiego?
During that same year (1989), the Carmen Sandiego franchise did a bit of an experiment and shrank their regional scope down to a state sized level with Where in North Dakota is Carmen Sandiego? As you can likely guess from the title, your goal is to track down Carmen and the other V.I.L.E. bad guys in the state of North Dakota following clues related to its locations and history. The game utilizes the same interface and overall gameplay as the previous entries.
This obscure Carmen Sandiego title did not do as well as the others, but its rarity makes it pretty unique (and possibly valuable). The game really only sold about 5 thousand copies and was not the most successful Carmen Sandiego game. This little project crashed and burned before it ever fully got off the ground. I suppose that's why there aren't 49 more of them.
In the 1990s, Brøderbund would also release several enhanced versions of the previous titles, such as Where in the U.S.A. Enhanced in 1990, Where in the World Deluxe Edition in 1992 (followed by another remake, Where in the World CD version, in 1995.
In 1993 the scope of Carmen Sandiego's games as well as her backstory took a bit of a change. Where in Space is Carmen Sandiego? switched from the usual topics of geography and history to astronomy. This was also the first iteration, where Carmen's past life as an ACME agent was revealed. In the previous games, they don't mention much of Carmen's past. Allegedly bored of the ease of her job, Carmen decided to switch sides to find a new challenge. In this latest entry, Carmen has taken her crime spree to space and has stolen the rings of Saturn. Which personally, I find it pretty impressive, but that's beside the point.
Needing to have some locals to help her, Carmen has recruited alien henchmen rather than the usual human crew. Now you must travel through the stars on a limited amount of fuel to stop the master thief. For this one, you'll need to know your constellations and planets. Back in the days when Pluto still had planetary status. Poor Pluto. As before, you need to gather clues, ask questions, and figure out the correct locations of the bad guys.
Though technically educational games and somewhat intended for "children," Broderbund would make 3 Carmen Sandiego games with children being their target audience. Carmen Sandiego: Junior Detective Edition (1995), Carmen Sandiego World Detective (1997), and Carmen Sandiego Math Detective (1998). World Detective, despite the title, is actually a game that is aimed at teaching literacy and English. In this version, Carmen has a devious plan to make the world illiterate, and the player has to collect passwords to shut down her machine. Math Detective is the first in the series to teach math and features several different areas of math, including word problems, geometry, estimation, money, and many others. The player must discover criminal hideouts and play math-related minigames to gain passwords that are used to stop Carmen's plans.
Those titles would be Broderbund's last three contributions to the series before it changed hands to The Learning Company. The new publisher would essentially keep the franchise aimed at children while making gameplay changes and revamping the original game. They would even release a few games that didn't mention Carmen by name.
The Learning Company has successfully kept the Carmen Sandiego franchise alive with a remake of the original classic and the release of a game that is available for play on Facebook. There is even a series on Netflix that completely changes Carmen's background and motivations. In this 2019 iteration, Carmen, rather than being the leader, is merely taken in by V.I.L.E. and is unable to live up their ideals and finds that her motivations deviate from theirs. She winds up, deciding to go up against them and return their stolen objects to where they were taken from. This version transforms Carmen into a hero who uses her skills for good. Though pursued by Interpol, ACME, and now V.I.L.E., she manages to find allies to help her in her mission.
Whether you are an old school Carmen Sandiego fan or more of a new school one, this franchise has something for everyone.