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GOTW: Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?
GOTW: Carmen Sandiego is right here!
- by Kevin Anderson

Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?
When you think about it, there aren't very many educational games out there that have staying power. Oh, there are plenty of non-educational games, like Super Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog, that manage to endure through changes in technology, but if teaching is one of the primary goals of a game, it would seem that it is not destined for a very long life.

There are a few games like Lemonade Stand that possess a timeless simplicity, and games like Number Munchers and The Oregon Trail have remained just memorable enough to warrant updates, but most other educational games seem to be quickly forgotten, remembered by a select few as more powerful hardware brings in newer, flashier games to aid in the learning process. The overwhelming exception is this week's topic, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

Few games, educational or otherwise, ever manage to approach the lofty heights achieved by that little Apple II game hatched by the wacky minds at Broderbund. Its legacy includes a PBS game show, a Saturday morning cartoon, innumerable classroom materials, and of course an endless stream of sequels, ports, and remakes that even today has yet to completely run dry.

An agent of E.V.I.L.
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego is, of course, a very simple game at its core. At the start of each game, you learn that some member of the Villains' International League of Evil (V.I.L.E.) has stolen some priceless world treasure (an ancient Aztec calendar, the Stanley Cup, the Eiffel Tower elevators, it's all up for grabs), and it's your job as a member of the ACME detective agency to run out and steal one of your own, quick track down the criminal and bring him or her to justice within a certain time limit.

Time to fly the friendly skies....
Thus, the game begins at the location of the theft, where (using an admirably simple interface) you interview various witnesses at three different sites. Each will offer some clue about where the thief might have been heading next: he was buying an Arabic dictionary, he was changing her currency to rupees, she wanted to hunt moose, and so on. As there are only three or four available destinations that can be traveled to at any location, these clues can be used to deduce the identity of the city to which the perpetrator fled. Get it right, and you'll find a V.I.L.E. henchman (one wonders how this organization can afford so many underlings), along with more witnesses who you'll have to interview to find where the thief headed next. Get it wrong, and you'll have to head back to your previous city and try again - hence the restriction of the time limit. Fortunately, many versions included a World Almanac of some sort that could be used to find the answers (if you could possibly figure the book out).

Book 'em Dano!
Of course, since the object here is to learn, you'll have to interview every witness at every location to begin with. Although this takes time, some of the witnesses will also tell you things about the criminal: his hair color, favorite sport, preferred vehicle, and so on. This information must be entered into the ACME computer; once you have sufficient details, you can identify the member of V.I.L.E. who stole the treasure and obtain a warrant for his/her arrest. Without a correct warrant, you see, even once you catch up with the criminal, you won't be able to arrest him or her, and you'll lose the game.

Osama thought he could get away under the disguise of Fast Eddie B.
Yes, like so many other educational games - electronic or otherwise - at its heart WITWICS is just a simple gimmick. Rarely, however, is such a simple gimmick pulled off with such admirable style. Each of the thirty different cities has a reasonably good-looking picture (it was the Apple II, after all), and there is also a variety of different sites (library, harbor, hotel, etc.) at which witnesses can be interviewed. The ACME computer and the teletype that greets you at the beginning and end of each game are also nice touches. The criminals you track all have catchy names, like Dazzle Annie Nonker or Ihor Ihorovitch, that do seem to give them a certain character, even without the manual's descriptions. And, of course, no other educational game has such a catchy soundtrack.

Another quaint classroom feature of WITWICS was that each player could specify his name when starting a new game, allowing the program to keep track of the number of cases each student solved. Thus, good performance would permit a player to rise through the ranks of the ACME Detective Agency, with the cases becoming progressively longer. Those who managed to avoid having their username erased by some malicious classmate would eventually reach a case where Carmen herself was the perpetrator; her capture would get one's name into the Hall of Fame for all to gaze upon while plotting appropriate schoolyard justice.

Where in the USA get the picture.
A game this successful naturally travels far (pun intended), and so not only was Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego ported at least to the PC, C64, Macintosh, SMS, SNES, and Genesis, but it also spawned more than a few sequels. Carmen would be pursued across the USA in Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego, as well as through Europe, American History, Time, Space, and on and on, with the teletype morphing into such items as a video cellphone or even an entire ACME headquarters. The game's rights were eventually bought by The Learning Company, and what must be the third or fourth version to grace the PC can still be found in bargain bins here and there. Of course, successful games inspire clones, but so powerful was WITWICS that it seems even Nintendo had to get in on the action, releasing the not-entirely-dissimilar Mario is Missing! on the PC, NES, and SNES.

If anything, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego has lasted simply because it has personality, or at least because the original game's personality was powerful enough to give it such powerful name recognition. One can only wonder if educational game programmers will ever be so daring again.

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