From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett (opens in new tab) wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week, a woman who sneaks around the world from Kiev to Carolina—but it's her early TV appearances we'll be taking a comically oversized magnifying glass to.
The problem with the word obscure is that it's so subjective. If you know of a thing, chances are you won't consider it obscure. When I cover games from the '80s, other people who were around at the time will merely consider them retro, while to people who weren't born yet, the idea that people could actually play games whose only colours were cyan and magenta can seem like insanity.
Today, if you grew up or took holidays to the US, you may well think "Well, yes, obviously that existed." To that I can only point to your people's reactions when they saw Knightmare (opens in new tab) for the first time. Smugly, because we had Knightmare and you did not. But you know what we didn't have? The cheapest ever attempt to turn a computer game into a TV show. With the possible exception of Maniac Mansion, of course.
Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego was an edutainment game with the focus on—What? I'm forgetting something? Oops, sorry. It's been a while since I used the "e" word. Give me a second here, I just need to check the media library. Let's see. Giant ant monster... bikini karate babe.... tongue of the Fat-Man.... where is it? Ah, yes, here we go. Sorry for the delay. *Blows dust off image.*
Where was I? Oh, yes. The first game was intended to teach kids geography, and in a pretty good way. You work for the ACME Detective Agency, armed only with a physical World Almanac full of information and a lack of anything more thrilling to play. Your assignment: track down master thief Carmen Sandiego, who may have stolen anything from the Eiffel Tower to Mozart's inspiration, and put her behind bars somewhat temporarily.
But that's the endgame. For most of it you were going up against agents of her criminal organisation VILE (which stands for Villain's International League Of Evil, though nobody really bothered with that), working your way up to the big fish. Inevitably, Carmen escapes about five picoseconds later, and the chase resumes. I suspect because otherwise everyone at ACME would be out of a job.
The first game came out in 1985 and was followed by roughly a bazillion more, from Where in Time to Where in Space to the endearingly parochial Where in America's Past and Where in the USA. It was a huge hit, setting a new record in Release to Punning with every single person who ever heard of it immediately doing some variant of "Where the Fuck is Carmen Sandiego?" Though the actual parody you'll find of that name is actually based on the show rather than the game.
Space Quest fans will also no doubt remember this one from the Space Quest 4 bargain bin. (Hardcore fans may sniff "Don't you mean Space Quest X?" If so, sssh. Be more like the Quest for Glory fans.)
A big reason for the series' success was, well, Carmen. With her iconic red trenchcoat (suck on it, Aiden Pierce, and your "iconic cap") and ironically catchy name, she quickly became one of the best-known faces of early computer gaming. She's also arguably one of the most awesome female characters from the early days, being entirely non-sexualised, incredibly respected by all, and as time went on, really fun. Her characterisation changed quite a bit over the years, but she's best remembered for the version in the cartoon that did make it around the world: Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?
Where on Earth was a slightly shaky cartoon, but mostly a successful one. Its main weirdness was doing that thing a lot of game conversions do, bending over backwards to scream "GAME! GAME! BASED ON A GAME! THIS WAS A GAME!" In film, that inevitably means the villain declaring stuff like "GAME OVER!" Here, it took an odder form. The premise was brother and sister ACME agents Zack and Ivy (fun fact, Ivy was one of Jennifer "Commander Shepard" Hale's first roles) as they chased Carmen around the world with a magic teleportation corridor and a floating wisecracking computer head that was meant to be their Chief. The weird thing was that on top of that was this layer of a player at home supposedly guiding it all, who the characters would occasionally talk to and Carmen would get in touch with by IRC to banter with, but who otherwise contributed nothing but an unnecessary nut-shot to the fourth wall.
Still, for what it was, it was OK. It cemented the idea of Carmen as a former ACME agent herself, who was too good at her job to remain interested in it and opted to become a criminal mastermind for more of a challenge. She and the kids had an endearing rivalry, which quickly turned into a level of fondness. While she was unrepentant about being a thief, she was all about the chase and would even go so far as to work with them on occasion and bail them out if they got in too much trouble. The show had some other interesting elements for the mid-90s too, like having Ivy be the older sister and the better fighter, while Zack was the brains. Like I said, not great, but interesting, and miles above most of the other edutainment shows being shat into children's eyes at the time.
Also, incredible props to the intro, for not only having the hidden gags that Carmen even stole her theme song (it's Mozart, with lyrics), but for the little story it tells of the kids being constantly given the NOPE! by their nemesis, and finally reassembling the little Earth statue they act like they weren't literally given, only for her to go "Yoink!" It wasn't much of a secret who the show's makers liked more.
But it's not the cartoon that we're talking about today. It's the game show. And... Okay. Normally I would leave this to the end, but since all the Americans are currently humming it or cursing their brains, and it's by far the series' most enduring element, let's get the music out of the way first. I'm sorry. I am so, so sorry. I almost feel like I should give the same instructions as Odysseus, urging you to fill your ears with wax. But no. There is no getting around it. Here is the song. This is it.
"Was that it?" you mutter. Oh, poor fool. No, that ear worm is now firmly in place. It will never truly be forgotten. It will emerge at the strangest of times. It will never stop. It will never, ever, ever stop. I saw this show on an actual television in the US, once. Once. In 1991. And still I know that she put the 'miss' in 'misdemeanour' when she stole the beans in Lima. Again, you were warned.
Now, this was no flash in the pan like when You Don't Know Jack (opens in new tab) was finally turned into a game show and lasted for about five minutes (five minutes being enough for six episodes, they're surprisingly fast to make). No, there were 296 episodes of this over five seasons, followed by a spin-off called Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego that had a much less memorable song. Wikipedia refers to it as 'short-lived'. There were 115 episodes.
But then again, when your budget is dwarfed by what most people can find in their sofa...
Each episode of the show was built around an investigation, with three kids as gumshoes charged with tracking down one of Carmen's minions in the wake of a theft, then going on to capture Big Red herself. This amused me a little, as it did in the game, since technically the answer to "Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?" was always going to be "Sitting on her ass somewhere."
Those VILE agents included, from both shows and the games, Patty Larceny, Robocrook, Sarah Nade, Sarah Bellum, the alien Kneemoi, Sir Vile, Jacqueline Hyde and Baron Wasteland. Thefts included everything from the Prague Astronomical Clock to the Internet, seen here in its true form:
In Where in the World they were all played by scrappily drawn pictures. Where in Time upgraded to the finest blue screen technology not much money could buy and had a small troupe of actors play the various characters. That included Carmen Sandiego herself of course, whose job was mostly to dispatch quirky minions throughout history instead of, once again, taking the initiative herself. Though here's a fun fact: back in the '90s, there was a Carmen movie planned. Starring, and I think the words "of all people" are appropriate here, Sandra Bullock. There was also talk of one starring Jennifer Lopez for ages.
The first round of the game was essentially trivia, with various characters popping in to do skits, play music and banter with the host and the Chief—his boss, who would sit in her room and sternly hurry everyone up and order them out of her office. Again, it's notable for the time that she actually took part in the comedy side of things as well rather than being a purely straight-woman, so definite points for that. The basic gist of this round was to track Carmen's agent to part of the world with random clues, help from wacky informants, song spoofs that suggested the in-house band Rockapella really should have been put under Serious Observation for both clearly being in league with VILE and also, well, this...
And once all that craziness was over came the more directly practical "tapping the villain's phone", presumably to get children and parents alike ready for their horrific future under the NSA's thumb and— One second, my phone just rang. Uh huh. Yes? I see. Okay. With a corkscrew?
Ahem. Where was I? Oh, yes. I meant of course, "presumably to get everyone ready for their bold but gloriously safe future in the NSA's warm bosom, sucking gently on the twin nipples of trust and security."
Not great audio, sorry, though YouTube is better than nothing. But to compensate, here's a clip of now-Vice President Joe Biden making a cameo appearance to tell the host he sucks.
The second round of the game then took the team (virtually) to a world city to track down the crook. This was that old memory game puzzle, where they competed to find three things in the right order: the Loot, the Warrant, and the Crook. That dealt with the main problem, at which point the crook would phone up to say something like "Honor amongst thieves? Surely you jest! If I'm going down, I'm taking Carmen with me..." and flat-out tell them where in the world she's currently hiding out.
Which meant the evil final round. Wow, was this thing brutal. Imagine having to locate countries on a map, within a ludicrously tight time limit. Now factor in that the map could be a map like Africa, with 11-year-old kids expected to find places like Madagascar and Angola under pressure, seven places in 45 seconds. With the host wasting time each round. On a giant map. That they're standing on. And just for a little bonus fun? It's upside down. That makes this one hell of an achievement.
(Arizona? Seriously? Oh well...)
Semi-related, this parody should make some sense now:
Somewhat amusingly for a show about geography, the only prize was a trip somewhere in the continental United States. Mostly because PBS couldn't afford anything fancy like actually going to Africa. The Where in Time final round was only slightly fairer, with a confusing set that involved running through gates, being asked long-winded trivia questions they had to wait for Carmen to finish asking even when they were blatantly obvious, and being not very well guided to the next gate by the crew of the "chronoskimmer" they were supposedly using to chase Carmen and co through history.
The prize was a computer this time, which seems fair enough given that journeys back to Ancient Greece are seriously costly. We're talking HBO money for that sort of thing.
And yes, Where in Time had a song too. It is very '90s. And not very good. At all. But...
If you're interested in checking out whole episodes, YouTube has vast, vast, vast numbers of them, like the one below, where I just noticed the gumshoes stole the Colin Baker Doctor Who's coat.
I wonder if ACME has an Internal Affairs division for investigating that kind of thing? Hmm. Someone should check.
And in the world of computer games? After the original games came many others, including the more cartoon-themed Carmen Sandiego's Great Chase Through Time, which actually featured The Chief from the TV show, and a truly crappy platformer called Carmen Sandiego: The Secret of the Stolen Drums, in which Carmen had an army of combat robots for some reason. There have also been a number of rip-offs, like Find Simona In New York City, but none more hilariously awful than a game called The Wild World of Madison Jaxx.
You will never find a more boring edutainment game. Despite that name, you more or less just travel around the world on the behest of a guy who wishes with every fibre in his being that he was Charlie and he had Angels to call and make bounce around in the sun while snottily telling everyone how to solve their environmental problems. Rather than, for instance, printing a bazillion awful edutainment CDs for a five-disc torture chamber that no sane child would ever want to play.
That one didn't get its own TV game show for some reason. And you know what that means? It didn't get its own song. One more time then... do it Rockapella.
Goddamn that goddamn song. Goddamnit.