Educational games… can they be fun? That’s what developer Venture Technologies and publisher Parker Brothers hoped for when they ported “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” from the computer to the Sega Master System in 1988. The game would feature ten different capers to identify and over 90 international treasures that have been stolen from 30 different countries around the world. Did I find Carmen Sandiego and did I have fun while learning?
There isn’t a huge plot to this game but you start as a rookie detective tasked with hunting down Carmen Sandiego and her gang. Each case becomes more difficult and after solving a few cases you’ll get a promotion and new title. Think of the title as a new difficulty for the cases because they continue to grow more challenging. The last case will have you hunting down Carmen Sandiego herself and if you do that you are entered into the “Hall of Fame” for detectives.
When the game starts up it asks you to select your ranking. You can choose from five different titles that range in difficulty. You can start as a rookie and work your way up the ladder or you can go right to the most difficult section of the game. I started at the very beginning and ended up solving around 20-25 cases before beating the game.
Every case starts the same way. You’ll get news flash on your typewriter notifying you that a treasure has been stolen from a certain country. It will give you the first clue of the caper revealing their gender. After the news flash, you travel to the scene of the crime and start your investigation. Your week starts at 0:700 on Monday and you have until 17:00 on Sunday to solve the case. If you don’t solve the case by then you fail and will have to redo a different case to try and advance.
When you start your investigation you’ll be outside of the airport. Each city has three different buildings that you can visit and interrogate the eye-witnesses. The buildings will be labeled like “museum”, “warehouse” or “sports club”. When you speak to a person they will give you hints on where the caper went or what they look like. Sometimes people in the same city give you the same information or variations of the same clue. Here are some examples of what they will say:
“I saw the person you are looking for, they were on a train with a red, white, and green flag.”
“The person you are looking for was here, they changed their currency to yen. She was holding a tennis racket.”
“I heard he was checking out all the books he could find on renaissance art. He was trying to conceal an ugly tattoo.”
These hints will give you clues on where they are going, and who they are. At the end of every city is a phone booth where you can call the Interpol and fill out the information on their criminal database to help ID the suspect. You can input gender, hobby, hair color, feature (like jewelry, tattoo, scar, etc…), and what they drive. When you have the information the Interpol will come up with the suspect and issue a warrant out for their arrest. You’ll have to track the criminal down to their hideout to properly arrest them.
When you get hints to the next location you head back to the airport and select the next destination. Usually, you’ll select from 3-4 cities around the world with one of them being the correct location. If you choose wrong, you’ll still fly to that country but lose valuable time. The people in these countries will tell you they haven’t seen anything suspicious which is the indicator that you’re in the wrong spot.
Each time you fly to a new city there will be a little blurb of information about it on the screen that discusses facts and features about the country which is where the learning comes in. I’m not going to lie, I learned some things playing this game for this review. Specifically, I learned new currencies and art styles in different countries.
When you are on the right trail of the suspect there will be henchmen that try and stop you by throwing a knife at you. You’ll need to dodge it by moving your detective up or down on the screen. If you get hit you’ll be injured and two hours of time pass. Aside from wrong flights, being injured, you’ll also have to account for sleeping which takes up about eight hours. Once you track down the criminal to their final hideout you will face them as they throw 3-4 knives at you. If you dodge them all the police will come and arrest the criminal ending the case. It gets hard by the time you are on the fourth or fifth ranking as the criminals throw more knives and mirror your movements on the screen. Carmen Sandiego threw like 10 knives and you have to constantly juke her out as she chucks knives at you, it takes some skill to survive her onslaught.
Some of the treasures that were stolen throughout my playthrough were a stamp collection, King Tut’s mask, a tusk necklace, a shrunken head, the abominable snowman, the Christ of Andes, Ivan the Terrible’s crown, Sibyl’s Secret, an Incan gold mask, the Rockettes, the Orozco mural and the Statue of Liberty torch. While you don’t see these treasures, they are fun to read about and made me research these items after playing. Which again, made me learn more which is the ultimate goal of this game.
I played this game a bunch when I was a kid but I didn’t get very far because there was a lot of reading involved and more importantly you had to have a knowledge of the world. That’s a bit difficult when you are six. I had a friend in middle school who used to be pretty cool and would occasionally come over on the weekend but to put it nicely he was not into school or very book smart. The reason why I bring him up is that one weekend we randomly started playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego and he loved it. It had him hooked.
We played it in my dad’s bedroom and he got so into it that he grabbed the globe we had in our house and was mapping out locations on where the thief could be. He was reading the manual, looking at country flags, and doing his best to solve the clues to figure out our next destination. Remember, this was before wifi so we had to solve to clues as sixth-graders by looking at the globe and manual. We did pretty decently for how young we were and earned a few promotions. I think it was the most learning he ever did in his life and he had a ton of fun doing it.
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego makes players combine critical thinking skills with upper middle school world context, and quick reflexes to make a great educational game disguised in fun.
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego scores a 7.7 out of 10.
Do you remember when Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego first came out? What age was you when you played it? Were you able to solve the cases and climb the career ladder? Let me know your memories and thoughts, I’d love to read the comments!
If you’d like to own a copy of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, you can purchase a used copy of it for Sega Master System from eBay for around $30.