This much we know about Carmen: she’ll ransack Pakistan and run a scam in Scandinavia. It’s much harder to figure out one simple thing: where is she? 35 years ago this week, kids started hunting for that sticky-fingered filcher with a thing for thievery. But did anyone expect that a computer game aimed at teaching geography would spawn multiple sequels, game shows, insanely catchy theme songs, and animated series and specials, including a new one for Netflix? Carmen Sandiego may have criminal tendencies, but she’s a legitimate phenomenon. Let’s crack the case of how Carmen stole the limelight.
Clue #1 – The First Game: The original Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? game was developed by Broderbund for all of the popular home computer platforms that were available in the early 1980s; that includes Commodore 64 and the Apple II, which was particularly popular in schools. The initial idea of an adventure for children came from programmer Dane Bingham; his co-workers Gene Portwood and Lauren Elliott joined the project, working on the concept of a game where you catch one criminal at a time. Gary Carlston, the co-founder of Broderbund, had traveled in Europe when he was younger, and suggested integrating geography into the game. They brought in writer Dave Siefkin, and Carlston instructed him to use the World Almanac for reference. Eventually, the story of a rookie detective (the player) tracking down a network of thieves and their elusive leader (the red-hat-wearing Carmen) across 30 countries using geography, pun-heavy clues, and a World Almanac (that came packed with the software) resulted in the original 1985 version of the game.
The game became an immediate hit upon release. Embraced by schools, it managed to do the nearly impossible thing of being a fun mystery while teaching the player as it went along. In the first 10 years, the original title would end up selling four million copies. Magazines like Compute! and Info heaped praise on the game. The Software Publishers Association called it the Best Learning Product of 1985.
Clue #2 – The Game Becomes a Franchise: You don’t have to be ace detective to know that a hit product usually means a hit sequel. In the case of Carmen Sandiego, that one game turned into an entire line of software. Since 1985, more than 20 official games have been released, with some broadening the scope to include history, math, and science. The series has earned over 100 awards throughout its existence.
Clue #3 – The Franchise Switches Identities: In 1991, PBS launched Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? as a TV game show. Bright and colorful and combining clues with animated villains, music, and sketch comedy, the show became a huge hit in its own right. Over five seasons and 295 episodes, it pulled in dozens of Daytime Emmy nominations, seven Emmy wins, and a 1992 Peabody Award. Without a doubt, the most memorable element of the show is its criminally catchy theme song, a title number by the vocal group (and program cast members) Rockapella. A spin-off, Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? ran for two seasons of 115 episodes following World.
Clue #4: She Made a Move to Saturday Mornings: With the games selling spectacularly well and the game show sailing along, Carmen was next discovered hiding out on Saturday mornings. Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? launched on the Fox Kids block in February of 1994, backed by the support of Fox’s other blockbuster Saturday morning shows, X-Men and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. The titular character was voiced by showbiz legend and EGOT holder Rita Moreno. As the four seasons of the show ran, Carmen turned into more of an antihero than straight-up villain.
Clue #5: She’s Back for the Streaming Age: Carmen Sandiego never really had a cultural dormancy period since the character and franchise broke through in the 1980s. Even today, Google and The Learning Company continue to develop gaming content. But the series popped up on the broader cultural radar again last year with the launch of the Netflix animated series, Carmen Sandiego. The modern Carmen (voiced by Gina Rodriguez) is now a Robin Hood type character, outsmarting both the detectives of ACME and the agents of her former criminal organization, V.I.L.E. Characters from every level of the franchise, including the games, the previous animated series, and even the game shows, appear in the series. There have been two complete seasons; on March 10, Netflix debuted a special interactive episode, “To Steal or Not to Steal.”
Today, Carmen Sandiego exists in that sweet spot of being both Gen X nostalgia and a familiar entity to schoolkids. Books, board games, and comics have continued the mission of teaching young people about their word through entertainment. Rumors continue to swirl about possible feature film adaptations, with Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Lopez both having been attached at various points. With the Netflix series set to continue and no real end in sight for the computer games themselves, the answer to “Where is Carmen Sandiego?” is actually pretty easy. She’s here to stay.