Revisiting 1985’s Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? is a way to travel through time.
The Carmen Sandiego empire looms large in our popular imagination, including the recent announcement of a new animated series with Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez as the voice of Carmen Sandiego. For me, two memories stand out the most:
- First, I watched the live-action game show version that starred Lynne Thigpen as the chief. The Rockapella theme song is legendary, but this show was also creative and engaging in the edutainment sense, like Jeopardy! for kids but with an interactive studio-sized world map. The TV show began in 1991, just after the Deluxe Edition of the game came out for Mac. A DOS port and then Windows port came shortly after.
- Second, I had the CD-ROM version of the game that was updated and released in 1996, with very different graphics and more robust content. I played the original game a little bit at school, but I played this CD-ROM version a lot more and on my family’s own computer.
The original Carmen Sandiego game is simple in gameplay and hugely charming.
A dot-matrix printer acts as your communication with headquarters, telling you where to go and the missing item you’re seeking. In each location, you talk with up to three local folks (or even animals, in the case of a pirate’s talkative parrot), and you glean where to go next along with biographical bits that help you narrow down your suspect list.
The game confirms when you’re in the right place by splicing in a cartoonish minion creeping around. If you choose the wrong place, locals there tell you they don’t know what you’re talking about so you can backtrack. When I played this week, the stolen items in my games included the escargot recipe you see here, a rare white gorilla in Rwanda, and Radio City Music Hall’s famous Rockettes.
I’ve mentioned before that my friend Finn teases me for loving pixel roguelikes, and Carmen Sandiego takes some of the elements of those randomly generated games and combines them with beautiful pixel art and a very graphical and user-friendly interface. Besides some major cartographical changes (Beijing appears in the game as Peking!), it’s really held up.