NES Games – Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego

Doesn’t this look like as much fun as being forced to listen to Roseanne sing the national anthem?

Like the Waldo craze and the whole Disney Afternoon semi-craze, “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” was a huuuugee fad for a few years. Broderbund came up with this idea in the mid eighties (for a computer game), and of course it spun off into two TV shows in the nineties. Eventually, as the PBS show waned in interest, they decided to do a reformat of it and it became this really crappy third show (now history themed instead of geography themed) with probably the dumbest kids they could find. Luckily it only lasted one year.

I think the video game series could probably boast about being the only video game to come with a desk encyclopedia. That’s right; the game comes in a 4 inch thick case with some crappy “encyclopedia” for use in solving the “crimes”. Basically the way you play this game is you’re racing a clock that arbitrarily counts down the “hours” you have left to solve a theft of a historical artifact. You go to a location in time (time jumping is the biggest use of “hours”) and ask people (a text box) about the crime and they give you clues to what the criminal looked like and where he/she was going. Then you look up the clue in your “encyclopedia” and head off there, where you do the whole thing again. Eventually you either run out of time, and do another case, or you solve the crime and do another case; there’s no difference between winning or losing, save the fact that in your fictional world, someone with an incredibly clever name like “Ella Vator”, “Jim Shorts”, or “Stu Pidname” will have managed to get away with a Stradivarius violin from 1730, and that even though you were hot on the trail, the case will never be solved. Each game only takes about 15 minutes, and the only thing that happens when you capture the criminal is you get “promoted”. There really isn’t any point to playing after the first 15 minutes because it gets really boring looking for 8th century Chinese vases.

I understand that it was made in the early nineties and that the graphics aren’t better because of it. I understand that it’s supposed to be an educational game about history, but it seems to me that the only thing that this game actually teaches people is how to look up answers in an encyclopedia. It would be more educational if perhaps there was a recap test at the end of the game, where you had a certain amount of time to answer questions based on stuff that you “learned” earlier in the game. I would equate this scenario to the difference between an open notebook test vs. a regular test. An open notebook test only serves to determine how well you take notes, except in the case where there are way more questions than you could ever answer by looking up, or it’s an essay test in which you need to take points out of your notes and combine them to form a coherent essay. A regular test should make sure that you have an actual practical understanding of the knowledge, much like the final challenge on the TV game show. For those of you who weren’t even allowed to watch PBS when you were a kid, the final stage of the game involved locating 10 or so countries or states (depending on the continent that the map was of) on a large map on the floor, within a certain amount of time. The host would call out the place name and the person would have to put a marker on it, showing that the kid actually understood the geography of the continent and was not just reading it off of a map with labels and then going to place the marker.

Granted, a game that had a quiz at the end of it wouldn’t be any fun at all. I can’t imagine a kid wanting to play something like that. I mean I played “number munchers” on the computer like all present twenty-somethings once did, before games had more than 3 colors to show, but those computer lab exercises that we’d have to do back in elementary school were just outright boring. I’d much rather have a teacher teaching me…. or be jumping on Goombas, or shooting bad guys, or even, putting puzzle piece-shaped blocks that fall from the sky into lines so they disappear. Video games need to be fun, and repeating the same process five times per game is not fun, especially when each game is so short. If you’ve played one “case”, you’ve played them all, but maybe the object that’s stolen and the thief are different. I’m not a game designer, but it seems to me that the people behind this game wanted to push a game as being “educational” without trying hard enough to actually be educational or interesting to kids. I wouldn’t put it out of the reach of the NES’s capabilities to be able to have a map with different countries and have the player have to identify them, but I guess no matter where it goes, it’s hard to mask the whole “teaching kids things outside of school” thing that the creators were going for.


This game gets one and a half stars for putting forth an effort to create an educational game, and succeed at actually making it really popular. On the other hand, the game actually sucks, is incredibly repetitive, doesn’t teach anything that would stick longer than 5 minutes, is without a real goal to acheive, is incredibly repetitive, and is just plain boring. Also, the time usually runs out before you catch the crook (because of the amount of “time jumps” necessary to catch him/her) leaving you frustrated over something that you probably had no interest in playing in the first place, but thought would be cool because the box was so big.

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