Last month, Carmen Sandiego debuted on Netflix. My kids, 11 and 5 respectively, both love the show and have already watched the entire first season. It’s a fantastic reimagining of the franchise, and it sent me on something of a journey back in time.
It is the early 1990s and I am with my family on vacation. We are at my Uncle Alan’s house. The adults are playing a board game called “Dweebs, Geeks, and Weirdos: The Game of Zany Stunts.” My cousins Tony and Jared are playing a video game. Both boys are older than me. They’re both talented artists and love comic books. They are cool, so I am hanging out with them. The game they are playing is “Where In The World is Carmen Sandiego?” (or was it “Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego?” It might also have been the “Where In the World is Carmen Sandiego Deluxe Edition.” Memory is a tricky thing, and I can’t recall which is correct. For narrative purposes we’re going to go with “Where In the World…”)
Originally released in 1985, the game was the brainchild of Dane Bigham, a programmer at Broderbund. He’d been inspired to create the game by the old text based game “Colossal Cave Adventure.” He mixed that idea with memories of playing “Cops and Robbers” as a kid. Broderbund co-founder Gary Carlston suggested making the game geography based, building the narrative around the World Almanac. Carlston even considered mailing a copy of the World Almanac with the game. The game’s titular character got her name from a mix of singer Carmen Miranda. It was also the name of a dog that David Siefkin (who was hired to write the script) used to own.
The game required you to track criminals all over the world. Each worked for the nefarious Carmen Sandiego, who was your final quarry. Players traveled to the scene of a crime and then collected clues about where the thief was headed next. There were multiple countries to choose based on the information gathered. Pick the wrong country and you’d have to backtrack. Choose wisely, and you’d receive a set of clues directing you to the next location. Eventually, you caught up with the criminal. As the game progressed, you would also get descriptions of the thief, helping you eliminate suspects and eventually get a warrant. If you failed to get a warrant, the criminal would escape. If you succeeded in the capture, you could gain a promotion by answering a geography question. You then received your next case. This continued until you eventually captured Carmen Sandiego herself.
As I recall, we played the game for hours while leaving the adults to their own devices. It was brilliant. Later, I watched the game show (which ran from 1991-1996) and even the cartoon (which ran from 1994-1999) but none quite compared to my earliest memory of the franchise: huddled around the computer in the back room at my cousins’ house, working together frantically to solve crimes.