It is hard to imagine that anyone today is unfamiliar with the character of Carmen Sandiego. Between her iconic red outfit, unbelievable criminal misdoings and an unforgettable theme song, the legacy of the Carmen Sandiego franchise has continued for over three decades.
Beginning with its launch with the video game Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? in the '80s, this basic adventure game has morphed into one of the most well-recognized geographical education systems around. Filled with various cases and activities centered around the misdeeds of Sandiego, players must use geographic information and, sometimes, a World Almanac to track down the criminal throughout the world. V
arious versions of the series have been published over the years, with Carmen traveling through the US, Europe, Time, and even America’s past. Although the franchise has not received a new video game in over two years, Carmen Sandiego still resides in the hearts of fans all over the world. In this article, we will explore the history of not only the franchise but the character of Carmen Sandiego as well.
From her humble video game origins to her future impact on generations to come, here are the 15 Things You Didn't Know About Carmen Sandiego.
Carmen Sandiego actually began as one of many villains developed for the series. However, writer David Siefkin put more effort into developing her background and her name. According to an article from Kotaku, Siefkin stated, “I wanted an exotic name, and took it from the singer Carmen Miranda and from Carmen, the adorable St. Bernard dog of my old roommates in San Francisco.”
Although the singer is actually Portuguese-Brazilian, Sandiego herself was of Hispanic descent. Not only did her nationality serve as a way of making the character distinctive but her name brought about additional benefits. The title Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego perfectly summed up both the main character and the purpose of the game! From there, the iconic character was born, and the game was released back in 1985.
Carmen Sandiego fans are familiar with the fact that the character is shrouded in mystery. Although her full name (which is actually Carmen Isabella Sandiego) has remained the same over the years, she has never been established with a defined backstory.
Her overall background was that she was a criminal mastermind and the nemesis to ACME detective agency. Heading her own crime organization called V.I.L.E., she utilizes a cast of villain stop help her steal artifacts around the world.
Later developed games, however, were inconsistent with her background. In one instance, she was given the backstory of being an orphan and being raised by The Chief, the head of ACME. Other editions of the game have skipped over her background entirely and developed her as a rogue agent of the agency altogether, severing her familial ties with ACME’s leader.
Despite her inconsistent history, she has always been portrayed as a cunning villain capable of steal national monuments, artifacts, and Wonders of the World. Personally, we need to know how she does that!
While many TV fans may only remember the game show Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, the franchise has actually existed long before this series. Dating back to its origins in the early 1980s, the series was originally released as a simple computer game that became an instant hit. Since then, the titular character Carmen Sandiego has starred in 19 different video games for over 30 years.
Her popularity has spread worldwide leading the video game series to be translated into several languages. In fact, the Carmen Sandiego franchise has been recognized for being one of the top 30 longest-running video game series of all time. Additionally, the original game show and the follow-up series Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? and Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? have been nominated for 45 Daytime Emmy Awards during their run.
One of the highlights of both the games and the series were the bevy of villains Carmen had at her disposal. As part of her V.I.L.E. organization, these criminals assisted Carmen with the theft of legendary landmarks around the world. Although the characters varied from series to series, most became recognizable due to their pun-filled names and defined appearance.
One particular villain that few fans knew about was Carmen’s pet cat, Carmine. Featured in the Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, Where in the U.S.A. Is Carmen Sandiego?, and Carmen Sandiego: Junior Detective Edition, her pet even had a criminal past. After being hit with a large sack of kitty litter, the cat’s mind was warped into that of a master criminal (yes, this is true).
As the impact of the Carmen Sandiego series and video games continued to grow, so did the popularity of the character itself. However, the depiction of Carmen had been very restricted. Though seen throughout the video games and game show, her appearance was always in animated form. Aside from photographs that were included in very early games manuals, no one had depicted her in a live version.
It was not until the debut of the 1996 game show Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? that viewers finally caught a glimpse of the elusive criminal mastermind. And yes, it was just a glimpse. Viewers had to settle for an obstructive view of Carmen on the series, with the actress herself going uncredited for the role.
Huffington Post writer Todd Van Luling conducted a 20-year search and found out that actress Janine LaManna played Carmen in the first season with Brenda Burke taking over the run in the second season. Even in real life, Carmen is hard to find.
Although Carmen Sandiego always seen dropping clues and hints in her dialogue, the character itself was never fully voiced or explored. However, Carmen finally had more dialogue and personality within the animated series Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? Not only was Carmen a more fleshed-out character but she was an EGOT too. Well, she was an EGOT thanks to the voice talents of Academy Award-winning actress and Broadway legend Rita Moreno, who tarred in musicals like West Side Story and gritty dramas like Oz.
As reported by the Chicago Tribune, Moreno chose the role “for the same reasons she did ‘The Electric Company’: ‘It is educational and informative beyond belief, and at the same time it satisfies the demands of children who need more action and movement on the screen."
Moreno continued as the voice of Carmen in the game Carmen Sandiego Junior Detective and as well as the films Where in the Universe is Carmen Sandiego? and Where in the Universe is Carmen Sandiego? II.
Between the ever-expanding video games series, game shows, and animated series, Carmen Sandiego became one of the most recognizable characters in the 1990s. With her trademark red trench coat and fedora, she was an easily identifiable character in any medium.
With her popularity growing with each new release, more opportunities to profit from the character started to emerge. As with any popular series or character, Hollywood loves to get its hands on it and turn it into a moneymaker.
In the late 1990s, Walt Disney Pictures was the first to try to bring Carmen Sandiego to the big screen. Disney bought the rights to the series and looked to cast Sandra Bullock in the lead role. Unfortunately, the project never moved out of the planning stages, and the movie was never produced.
In a second attempt to bring Carmen Sandiego to the big screen, Walden Media bought the rights to the series in 2011. For this project, Shades of Blue actress Jennifer Lopez was attached as a producer of the project. The project would be co-produced by Nuyorican Productions and Underground Films.
Their initial plan was to build on the success of the adventure mystery movies that were popular in the 2000s, inspired by caper movies like The Thomas Crown Affair. There has been little news on the project since then, except that Lopez would not be playing the lead role. No word yet if this project will ever be made either. We will provide updates on this project as we receive them.
Surprisingly, the legacy of Carmen Sandiego began with vastly different plans for the original video game. Created by Brøderbund programmer Dane Bigham, the series (without Carmen as the lead) was intended to be a simple text-based cops and robbers type of game. At the time, the Apple II was gaining in popularity with both home users and education facilities. Early concepts for the game even varied significantly from the iconic Carmen Sandiego character.
According to an article from Computer History, the series was originally developed as “the game ‘Six Crowns of Henry VIII’ in which players chased the Tudor King around London.” Although the lead character was not the same, the groundwork for the “chase adventure” concept remained. However, thanks to the input of Brøderbund co-founders Gary and Doug Carlston, its development took a turn for a more educational focus.
The original “chase adventure game” made a notable change once Gary and Doug Carlston gave their input. Known for having a love for geography, Gary Carlston suggested a new direction for the game that would require the players even to utilize a World Almanac to search for answers.
However, this love for geography came at the perfect time for the United States. Geography was actually one of the areas of study that most Americans were terrible at. Apparently, one in four American was unable to place the Soviet Union or the Pacific Ocean on a map Yikes!
While Bigham was initially hesitant at the change, the game began to take a more focused direction with not only the geographical change but the development of its iconic main character, Carmen Sandiego.
By 1989, the popularity of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? game was at its peak, having sold hundreds of thousands of copies throughout the country. Developers expanded the franchise with more games with themed focuses on certain parts of the world including Europe and the US. In 1991, PBS decided to invest in the franchise and debuted the Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? game show on September 30.
The show incorporated the characters and villains of the original game with geographical based questions and challenges. The series became wildly popular and garnered six Daytime Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award during its run. The popularity of the series resulted in a surge of popularity for the computer games as well.
Although the series only ran until 1995, it became the longest-running game show on PBS. Also, the series has been recognized as the second longest-running children’s game show behind the Nickelodeon classic show Double Dare.
Being completely based in the world geographic and historical trivia, the show made it a priority to verify all facts, data, and questions for the tv series. Even during a time of major changes with the U.S.S.R. and other territorial reorganizations, the series maintained a very low rate of factual errors. In fact, the game show only had one geographical error in its entire run - one contestant answered a question correctly, but the show claimed it was wrong. The mistake was announced at the of the show and Campbell was invited back for Season 3 to try again. Incidentally, she ended up being the winner of her episode.
Along with its nearly flawless history, there is only one episode that has never aired. In the unaired episode "Auld Lang Gone", the winning contestant made it to the final Map stage, but she broke her arm while trying to complete it. The second-runner up took her place and finished the map challenge for her instead.
Though many fans of the series may not be able to recall some of the details of the show itself, the unforgettable theme song for the series has stood the test of time. Written by Sean Altman and David Yazbek, the acapella group Rockapella performed the theme song every week. Incorporating lyrics about Carmen’s travels throughout the world, the theme song was definitely a favorite among fans.
However, the songs itself has created its own legacy even years later. The song is one of the most memorable TV theme songs in television history. In 2001, TV Guide even listed at #47 on its list of 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time. Quite a legacy for a simple educational program.
After the release of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, developers at Brøderbund had expectations that the game would become popular among parents. Thought the game was an adventure game, it was not marketed as being educational.
Programmer Dane Bigham shared with Kotaku that “We didn’t want to call it ‘educational… We wanted to call it ‘exploration.’ Educational meant really boring software; it’s ironic that it got tagged as an educational game. That was not our objective, really.”
However, due to the word of mouth of educators, the game soared in popularity among school systems throughout the country 18 months after its release. Since then, Carmen Sandiego has played an integral part in geographical education at various schools and has been utilized to supplement students’ education for years to come.
The Carmen Sandiego franchise expanded well beyond the video games of its heyday. Along with its expansion into TV and movies, Carmen Sandiego can also be found in various book series, comic books, board games, and card games. Though the last game, Carmen Sandiego Returns, was published in 2015, her legacy will find new life in an upcoming Netflix project.
As we reported earlier this year, the new Netflix animated series will star Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez in the titular role. In addition, we reported that Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard has also been cast in the series as Carmen’s accomplice, Player. The series will “will consist of twenty twenty-two minute episodes, and will be produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, with a premiere date set for sometime in 2019.”
We will continue to report on this project as more details become available.
Do you have any Carmen Sandiego trivia or memories to share? Leave them in the comments!