From the ads of the past, games of yesteryear – Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?

The ad was simple, showing off the game box and a few screenshots. The back of the box was illustrated with faux newpaper clippings and documents scattered on a table describing the game and your role as the detective on the case. It wasn’t quite as grim as Oregon Trail, but it was an amazing edutainment title that had provided hours of fun. And it came with a free book! Well, at least the first release did.

Among all of the dungeons, shooters, and strategy games to come out in the 80s, edutainment also had a role to play in the young but vibrant PC market as IBM PCs, C64s, Apple IIs, and a host of other platforms fought for desktops everywhere. One of the most famous titles belonged to Broderbund when, in 1985, they released Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?.

The “game” came in a huge and heavy box because the initial release included a copy of The World Almanac and Book of Facts by Pharos Books in addition to the game disks and manual. The IBM PC version had even come with both 3.5″ and 5.25″ copies of the game.

The box was also labeled with the names of the designers, Gene Portwood and Lauren Elliott (as they appeared on the packaging) though the ad above confusingly shows only Dane Bigham’s name. The IBM PC version also noted on the requirement label who the programmer was – Glenn Axworthy. For the Amiga version, Sculptured Software was noted as handling the port. Console gamers may also remember seeing Sculptured Software’s work from the early 90s, such as with Mortal Kombat II for the SNES, before Acclaim snatched them up.

Instead of blasting aliens and saving worlds, players took on the role of Acme investigators on the trail of V.I.L.E.’s (Villains’ International League of Evil) minions as they roamed the world stealing famous landmarks and treasures such as the Crown Jewels or even the torch from the Statue of Liberty. How they did these crimes isn’t so important as it is in finding the clues to track them down and catch the villains responsible.

The huge almanac that came with the first releases of the game wasn’t only there to add weight to the packaging. It played an important part in deciphering some of the clues in the game on where to head to next. It was also used as copy protection of the “read and verify” variety where the game would refer to something in the book outside of the typical research asked for by the gameplay. If you couldn’t provide the answer, that was it.

The game allowed some degree of personalization allowing players to use their own name in the game. They were then assigned a starting rank and the more criminals they bust, the more promotions they’ll get up through each of the five ranks available until hitting Ace Detective.

Somewhere in the 30 cities that the game provides is the thief that you’re currently going after. There are ten possible suspects and tracking down your quarry from among them becomes more and more difficult the higher in rank you are.

Typically, things start at the crime scene whether it’s in New York for that missing Torch or London for the Crown Jewels and it’s time to start looking around and reading the text onscreen for any clues. Clues are gathered by traveling to different destinations and investigating each one simply by visiting local places such as a marketplace or a hotel. Doing so automatically triggers a comment by the locals with telltale clues that you can enter into the crime computer at Interpol to narrow the field. The almanac becomes even more useful when clues pertaining to language, animals, or monuments come up making it necessary to look them up to see where you should head to next.

Once the crime computer finds a definite match, it will issue an arrest warrant for the villain. Then it’s up to you to track them down and if you manage to find them, a short animated chase ensues. If the right warrant is in hand, an arrest is made and a treasure is returned to its rightful owners. Also, everything’s timed! Doing things like investigating and traveling (even sleeping which just happens when the time gets late) will burn down how much time you have left before the deadline.

The simple controls made it easy to pick up and the randomization of its clues split between ten villains, numerous cases, ranking up, and thirty cities, ensured that no two games were ever exactly alike in the run up to tracking down Carmen herself. Later iterations wouldn’t include the huge almanac and made do with a smaller pamphlet such as the one for the Sega Master System with its “Detective’s Almanac”.

This one game would unleash an enduring Carmen Sandiego crime wave that would see her and her crew steal their way through time and space over the next few decades. She would even feature in her own cartoon series in the 90s, books, television game shows for kids, and CD-ROM enhanced remakes. She also wasn’t above stealing her way into math and Facebook.

The first game was ported to a massive number of platforms over the years from the Apple II and the Macintosh to the SNES and TurboGrafx CD system. It saw numerous enhancements taking advantage of the technology it would be ported over to. The Deluxe version, released in 1990, featured a number of new enhancements such as better graphics and a slicker looking interface. The CD-ROM version in 1992 went even further with included speech, even better sound effects, and even locale-specific music.

Broderbund’s humble edutainment title from the 80s has, in many ways, become the face of edutainment at large because of its enduring legacy which has even outlasted the company that created it. It’s seen success on television and even as a licensed planetarium program adding to its already impressive list of accolades as generations of gamers grow up learning about the world around them chasing after criminals while exercising their minds instead of their trigger fingers.


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