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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?

I may have talked about this earlier in the blog, but I have always loved the computer game “Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?” because it truly was one of the best educational games that one could play.

Aside from the fact that your main goal was to try and arrest Carmen Sandiego and her minions, who were guilty of stealing various objects and artifacts all over the world, the game really taught players various tidbits and facts about history and geography. Sequels to the game were made, including one called “Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego?”, which focused more on history than geography. At any rate, the game was widely successful and is still played in elementary school classrooms all over the world.

But, did you know that the popular computer game series also spawned two successful children's game shows? And, in the case of one of them, it currently holds the record for being the longest running children's game show that ever aired on PBS, and the second longest running children's game show in the United States overall?

On September 30, 1991, the first of these shows debuted on PBS, and will be the show that will be mostly discussed in this blog entry. The show was “Where In The World In Carmen Sandiego?”, and it's probably best known for the catchy theme song that is performed by the band Rockapella. Oh, look, here's a song clip below.

Isn't that catchy? At least, I think it is, anyway.

Part of the reason behind the creation of the game show came from a National Geographic survey. The results showed that Americans did not have a whole lot of general knowledge when it came to global geography. When the survey was taken in 1989, the results claimed that only one in four knew which ocean was the Pacific. The same amount knew where the Soviet Union was located on a map. So, in an effort to make geography fun to learn, the game show was created.

The show debuted on PBS when I was ten, and it ended its original run in December 1995, when I was fourteen. Appropriately enough, the contestants of each show were roughly between the ages of ten and fourteen. All three contestants were dressed up like detectives, and were known as 'gumshoes'. One of Carmen Sandiego's henchmen (or henchwomen) had stolen an artifact from a historical landmark from somewhere in the world, and it was their job to go around the world to try and catch them.

Of course, the gumshoes had some help along the way.

Hosted by Greg Lee (who did work behind the scenes on “Double Dare” before hosting Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?), Greg took on the role as the Special/Senior Agent in charge of training new recruits at the ACME Detective Agency. But when you consider that the show was marketed towards a young audience, this meant that Greg's role on the show was purposely exaggerated. He was a goofball, and he often found himself in strange situations, but he was also very likeable, and I thought he made a great host.

You also had assistance from the chief of ACME, played by the late Lynne Thigpen. Unlike Greg, the Chief was no-nonsense, and did things by the book. Her dialogue was meant to be serious and powerful, but it often came across as funny, due to the overuse of alliteration, puns, and wordplay. Basically, the Chief was the Yang to Greg's Yin, and both of them worked well together. It made the show more enjoyable.

Lynne Thigpen's portrayal of the Chief proved so popular that she was actually incorporated into future Carmen Sandiego computer games, and she was invited back to be a part of the spin-off game show, “Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego?”, hosted by Kevin Shinick.

(Kevin Shinick has since become a writer and voice actor for the show “Robot Chicken”.)

So, why don't we watch an episode, and then discuss how the game was played?

So, the way the show worked was like this. As I said earlier, we'd see a clip of one of Carmen's minions stealing a landmark from somewhere in the world. It could be the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, the Statue of Liberty's torch, or Abraham Lincoln's nose from Mount Rushmore. We also knew the identity of the criminal who did the deed, and more often than not, the name would be a pun. With criminals named Patty Larceny, Sarah Nade, RoboCrook, Top Grunge, and Double Trouble (a set of twins), I suppose it's to be expected. It was a show for children.

During the first couple of rounds, Greg would show the contestants a segment, or act out a skit that would determine where the villain would be spotted next. Usually, these clips would have clues for the location. It could be a species that is native to that country, or it could be the mention of the capital city of the country, or they could bring up a popular landmark, or famous export that the country is known for. If savvy players could put all the clues together, they could narrow down the city or country where the thief was spotted.

And, sometimes the clues were given by celebrities, such as James Avery from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, pop princess Debbie Gibson, and various sports heroes.

Each person was given a set number of points, which were known as ACME Crime Bucks. The more you had, the better chance you had of staying in the game. Each question was worth a certain number of Crime Bucks, and the more questions you got right, the more points you got. Eventually, the chase would stop after a few questions were asked, and the final question would be asked. Unlike other questions asked, the gumshoes would be shown a map of three possible destinations that the criminal were spotted in, and this really helped the contestants wager as few or as many points as they liked, based on how well they knew the area that was focused on. The two contestants who had the highest scores would move onto the next round. The loser would get some prizes including a subscription to National Geographic World, and a world almanac. Something geography related anyway.

So, once the contestants narrowed down where the crook was located, they would transport to the area where the crook was found, and then learn a little bit about the area. Once they had that, they were taken to a board where there were fifteen different locations where the loot could be found, where they could obtain a search warrant, and where the criminal was hiding out. The trick was that the places had to be found in the correct order...loot, warrant, criminal. The first person to get all three items in the right order would win the chance to play in the final round, where the prize was very nice. The loser was given almost a similar parting gift at the third place finisher.

Now, here's where the real test came. As the show progressed into its final round, there was much celebration to be had...but Carmen was still out there, and you still had no idea where she was. Fortunately, the minion you just helped send to jail would be of some help. S/He would give out the location of a continent, and it was up to the detective to chase her around the continent.

The winning contestant would be taken to a gigantic world map, and armed with seven giant map markers, Greg would announce the name of a country or city, and it was the detective's job to place the marker on the correct place. The maps included the United States, North America, South America, Asia and Australia, Europe, and Africa. If they were right, they would move to the next destination. If not, they only one more chance to get it correct before they were forced to give up and move to the next destination. They had to get a specific number correct before time ran out to win the grand prize. The grand prize in the first couple of seasons was a trip to anywhere in the interlocking 48 states of the United States (excluding Alaska and Hawaii), but in later seasons, the destination was expanded to anywhere in North America.

So, in conclusion, I thought that “Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?” was a fantastic video game, and for children, it was also made into a wonderful television game show. Sure, it hasn't aged well over the last twenty years, but at least I can say that watching the show greatly helped my own grades in geography!

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