Carmen Sandiego, from the Fox TV show.


Original Medium: Video games
Released by: Broderbund Software
First Appeared: 1985
Creators: Gene Portwood, Mark Iscaro, Dane Bingham, Lauren Elliott
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Toondom today is replete with characters like Sonic the Hedgehog, Pac-Man, Earthworm Jim and others that started out in video games. The first to become widely known is probably Carmen Sandiego. She made her debut in Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, released by Broderbund Software in 1985. In computer time, that was so long ago, today's dominant platforms, Macintosh and Windows, didn't exist yet — It was made for those systems' predecessors, …

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… Apple II and DOS, respectively, as well as their long-defunct competitors, Commodore and Amiga, and still-extant game specialist Sega.

The purpose of the game was to teach geography — but to do so entertainingly. It seems to have succeeded on both counts. It got high marks from educators, and was entertaining enough to become a best-seller. Carmen, whose name was designed to sound exotic while still rolling easily off the tongue, was a world-class criminal, who was liable to steal anything and could turn up anywhere. She was assisted by a gang of interchangeable stooges who belonged to V.I.L.E., an organization whose initials may or may not have stood for anything in particular.

Players were agents of The Acme Detective Agency, and would take their orders from The Chief. They'd gather clues by using what they knew of geography. The game was created by former Disney artist Gene Portwood, with writers Dane Bingham, David Siefkin and Lauren Elliott. At first the game lacked a voice component, but in later versions The Chief was played by Alex Fernandez, who went on to play in many other animated productions, such as Gen-13, Spawn and Aeon Flux.

The Carmen Sandiego character was so popular, her game was followed up with Where in Europe Is Carmen Sandiego? (1988), Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? (1989) and more, covering a wide variety of different subjects. There were also Carmen Sandiego books and board games.

Carmen's first venture into television was also titled Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? It was produced by several partners, with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It was broadcast on PBS (Dragon Tales, Clifford the Big Red Dog) beginning Sept. 30, 1991. It was formatted as a game show, with Lynn Thigpen (who primarily did face acting but had an occasional bit part in shows like King of the Hill) as The Chief and other characters (such as Carmen's henchmen, Robocrook, Patty Larceny, Sarah Nade, etc.) by Laura Dean (Galaxy Rangers), Chris Philips (Osmosis Jones), Doug Preis (Thundercats) and Michael Ruschak (Beavis & Butthead). The show ran until 1996. Then it was revamped into Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego?, which was similar except that history was included in the subject matter.

While this was going on, Fox Kids (Eek! the Cat, Tiny Toon Adventures) picked it up as a regular animated series. Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? began February 5, 1994, with Rita Moreno (known for face acting with only a few scattered voice credits) in the title role and Rodger Bumpass (Squidward in Spongebob Squarepants) as The Chief. Other voices heard include Tim Curry (Nigel Thornberry), Scott Menville (Robin in 21st century productions of Teen Titans and Batman) and Jennifer Hale (Mom in The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy).

Throughout the 1980s and '90s, Carmen Sandiego thrived in games, animation, books and a wealth of merchandising. She's slowed down during the new century, with fewer new productions. But much of the older material is still available (tho it's now managed by Riverdeep Interactive Learning, which currently, through a series of mergers and acquisitions, owns Broderbund). And a feature-length movie version is rumored, tho so far, there doesn't seem to be anything concrete.


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Text ©2006-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Riverdeep Interactive Learning.