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.
With the holiday season upon us, it makes us think back to the toys and amusements of yesteryear. For every generation since the early 1970s, video games have grown from part of our common culture to something that can be an immersive and interactive ongoing experience. More popular than ever, video games are played by over 211 million Americans. With that in mind, here’s the second part of our look back on some of the biggest crazes to hit home video gaming. (You can read Part 1 here.)
1. Pokémon – 1996
What can you say about Pokémon? When you describe the franchise’s massive success, you start to run out of superlatives. Originally conceived as a pair of Nintendo GameBoy games, Pokémon has endured and achieved media dominance in console gaming, mobile gaming, collectible card gaming, toy sales, and animation. The simple conceit of catching monsters that will fight on your behalf in tournament settings has led to more than 300 million games sold in the broader series, with over 800 million mobile downloads on top of that. Nearly 28 billion (yes, billion) cards have been sold. There’s no sign that Pokémon will ever lose steam; along with two games released for Nintendo Switch in 2018, there’s a new live-action film arriving in 2019 while anime films and television episodes continue to be made. It is, quite simply, one of the most important and lucrative intellectual properties in the history of Earth.
2. Grand Theft Auto – 1997
You’re bound to generate controversy when your game gives players bonus points for running over people in a stolen police car. Such is the world of Grand Theft Auto, which can arguably be seen as a forerunner to the wave of anti-hero television that includes The Sopranos, The Shield, and Breaking Bad. In GTA, you’re a bad guy who works for criminals and racks up points by committing crimes and wreaking general havoc. In roughly a year, the game sold a million copies for PC and PlayStation, despite getting knocked for graphics that were considered subpar. However, by 2001’s GTA III, the new version would be earning rave reviews for looks, story, and concept while selling over 14 million copies. More than 20 years and many other installments and spin-offs later, fans eagerly await GTA VI, a wish that may come to fruition after their creators, Rockstar Games, finally finished and released the similarly acclaimed Red Dead Redemption II (which shipped over 17 million copies in two weeks).
3. Halo: Combat Evolved – 2001
It’s said that a new console needs that “Killer App” to be able to move units, that one game that makes it not only worthwhile, but maybe necessary, to own that system. Halo: Combat Evolved did the killing on behalf of Xbox. In Halo, you are Master Chief, a space marine in a powered suit of armor battling aliens on a mysterious outer space construct called Halo. The first-person-shooter scenario was powered by an inventive story with an interesting mythology, cool weapons, and action-filled gameplay. It spun off into a legit cultural phenomenon, with tie-in novels, comic books, and amazingly well-written trading cards from Topps. When Halo 2 dropped in 2004, it was an immediate and massive success, selling over six million copies in the United States and becoming one of the most popular multiplayer games of all time. At this writing, there are a dozen Halo games in circulation with another on the way.
4. Guitar Hero – 2005
Guitar Hero tapped into what Twisted Sister already knew: you wanna rock. Rooted in the appeal of whaling away on a mighty axe like Eddie Van Halen or Slash, Guitar Hero combined the rhythm game genre with the fantasy of being a rock star. The game also introduced some of the coolest peripherals ever in terms of the guitar controller. The series exploded in popularity early, and Activision was quick to feed it with downloadable content and expansion games. When rival game Rock Band introduced drums and microphones to the genre, Guitar Hero followed suit, allowing players to experience the vicarious thrills and frustration of trying to get everyone to play a song correctly together. Unfortunately, despite major success with various installments and spin-offs like DJ Hero, the rhythm game genre flamed out through oversaturation of the market and hasn’t had a major recovery, despite attempts to revive the brand in 2015.
5. Batman: Arkham Asylum – 2009
Batman fought his way through video games a number of times in the past, so what makes the Arkham series so special? For one thing, its engrossing story was written by Paul Dini, celebrated writer of animation and comics and one of the talents that powered Batman: The Animated Series to classic status in the ’90s. For another, three of the major voice actors from that show (Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorkin) reprised their respective roles as Batman, Joker, and Harley Quinn. Top that off with innovative gameplay that effectively blends all of Batman’s abilities, including combat prowess, keen detective skills, and stealth, and you’ve got a sensation. It sold two million units in three weeks. The game even pulled off a Guinness world record for “Most Critically Acclaimed Superhero Game Ever” until it was displaced by its own sequel, Arkham City. To date, nine games have been released in the series, including a mobile version of Arkham Origins in 2013 and a VR take in 2016.
6. Skylanders – 2011
Other franchises may have promoted buying collectibles that were based on the game, but you have to hand it to Skylanders for taking it to a level where buying collectibles is part of the game. Although U.B. Funkeys broke similar ground in 2007, Skylanders conquered the planet. Part of the initial appeal was the inclusion of the popular dragon Spyro, imported over from another series of games. Here, Spyro teamed up with a new group of characters with powers rooted in different elements (Fire, Water, Tech, etc.). When you placed your figure on the game portal peripheral, that character would appear in the game as your playable character. As you moved through the game, you could level up your character and unlock new abilities that were saved on a chip in the figure. However, certain obstacles and levels required characters of different elements to complete, ensuring that you’d want to collect (okay, buy) other characters for a more developed gaming experience. The game’s combination of fun character design and general good humor were a big part of the appeal. Expansion packs added levels at a cheaper cost than sequels, though the sequels (and many, many more figures) came in force. The characters have gone on to be represented in comics, animated television, and trading cards. With six console games and a number of mobile games in release, Skylanders has made over $3 billion with over 300 million toys sold by 2016.
7. Minecraft – 2011
When you become a reference in a show like South Park or Rick & Morty, that’s when you know that you’re firmly entrenched in pop culture. Such is the way with Minecraft, the game developed by Markus Persson that puts a premium on the creativity of the players. In a way, it’s difficult to easily sum up the game because it presents a number of opportunities; much of the play is dictated by the way that the player wants to play the game. Regardless of your path, resource gathering and building are critical pieces. Players collect blocks of different materials and can assemble them into houses, machines, and more. Some modes are antagonist-free, while others pit the player against enemies, or even starvation (run out of food in Survival mode, and you starve, just like in Oregon Trail). More than 154 million copies of the game have been sold, and there are still over 91 million monthly active players online. Many users have created their own downloadable content even as new official expansions and sequels continue to be released.
8. Fortnite – 2017
Combining the gathering and building notions of games like Minecraft and the “we have to use plenty of weapons to kill the zombies coming for us” aesthetic of countless games and films, the Epic Games release Fortnite exploded in 2017 and won’t be slowing down anytime soon. Its popularity is driven in part by its multiple modes. Save the World is more of a classic survival-horror/action experience, while Battle Royale lets up to 100 players play against each other in a constantly shrinking map. The newly-released Fortnite Creative allows players to build their own complex environments for gameplay. In a way, Fortnite is a distillation and extrapolation of years’ worth of popular game concepts in one place. The game is currently played by more than 200 million players (officially), though its cultural footprint has grown even larger. A piece of that are the emotes (dances) that characters are able to perform; many of these have caught on in the larger culture, although a number of the emotes appear to be based on dances pioneered in various pre-existing hip-hop videos. Nevertheless, Fortnite continues to dominate the video game conversation and will likely find its way under more than a few trees this year.
Featured Image: The Skylanders: Imaginators Starter Pack for Xbox 360. (©Activision)