That’s Edutainment: Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time

Welcome back to That’s Edutainment, which looks at educational video games of the past and considers whether they hold up today, focusing on their development and on the relationship between education and entertainment. Previous articles can be found here

Today, we’re starting this column’s first-ever miniseries – the Summer of Carmen Sandiego! For the next few weeks, we’ll focus on games from the Carmen Sandiego series, how they fit into the surprisingly weird history of the franchise, and their legacy as edutainment. (I originally had an article about the first Pajama Sam game planned, but it hadn’t been working out.)

Our first entry in the miniseries is the 1997 title Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?, re-released in 1999 under the title Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time. The header image is from The Cutting Room Floor.

To avoid confusion with other Carmen properties also called Where in Time, we’ll refer to this game as Great Chase Through Time throughout. Let’s begin!

The origins of Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time are more complicated than one might expect, with commercial necessity and creative inspiration together resulting in one of the most influential titles in a long-running franchise. 

In 1996, Carmen Sandiego was everywhere. The 1985 Broderbund game Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, which had only become successful a year and a half after its original release, had ended up birthing a lucrative multi-media phenomenon. There were two key aspects of this success: the 1992 release of the Deluxe Edition of World, and, perhaps most significantly, the immense popularity of a game show of the same name that premiered on PBS in September of 1991. 

The Where in the World TV show, co-produced by public broadcasting stations WGBH and WQED, included a mix of live-action and animated elements. Like the Carmen Sandiego games, players (in the role of ACME agents) answered a series of clues to apprehend Carmen and her V.I.L.E. lackeys. Each episode also featured the ACME Chief, portrayed in-person by actress Lynne Thigpen, and an iconic theme song by the group Rockapella. The show lasted five seasons, concluding in December of 1995 with seven Daytime Emmys to its name and just under three hundred episodes aired.

The Where in the World TV show also had a significant impact on the Carmen Sandiego games themselves. The 1992 Deluxe Edition of World merely advertised the PBS show on its packaging, and featured an animated British man as ACME Chief. By contrast, the 1996 edition of World incorporated new videos from Thigpen, establishing her as ACME’S leader not only in the TV show but in the games as well. 

Given the success of this format and formula, one might have expected Broderbund and its affiliates to continue it for the remainder of the Nineties. However, everyone involved had a different idea in mind.

In October of 1996, PBS premiered the follow-up to the World TV show: Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? This show included many of the same elements as the previous series – Thigpen reprised her role as Chief – but focused on teaching history, rather than geography. 

The Where in Time TV show title card. Credit: Wikimedia

This change in subject matter was decided upon by the World TV show’s executive producers, who reprised their roles for Where in Time. Their reasoning was twofold: studies had shown that American schoolchildren performed poorly when it came to historical subject matter, and Broderbund already had a history-themed Carmen title they could use as a tie-in: Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?, which had been released in 1989. 

The 1989 Where in Time game. Credit: MobyGames

Around the same time as PBS was conceptualising the Time show, Broderbund was itself planning to remake the 1989 Time game using a cartoony style similar to that of the 1996 version of World. Broderbund once again saw the opportunity to tie the TV show and games together by including Thigpen in video appearances. As Ken Goldstein, then Broderbund’s VP Education & Entertainment Products, described in a 2019 interview:

We were just putting Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego v3.0 into development … We showed the prototype to our friends at PBS and they loved it, including putting Lynne Thigpen into the game to introduce and summarize the cases, which was so much fun.

Development of Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time continued during the first season of the Where in Time TV show, which concluded in early January of 1997. The game was finally announced at the 1997 Toy Fair in New York City on February 10, 1997, to be released that Fall. In what I’m sure was pure coincidence, season 2 of Where in Time premiered in Fall of 1997 as well. (Season 2 began airing on October 6, 1997. It’s unclear on which specific date Chase was released.)

In Great Chase Through Time, Carmen breaks eight of her cronies out of ACME jail and sends them back in time, tasking each with stealing an item of historical importance; such objects range from the Book of the Dead to the score of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

There were quite a few tie-ins to the TV show: Many of Carmen’s lackeys also appeared in the show; Carmen herself is voiced by Brenda Burke, who also voiced her in the show’s second season; and the game and show both had the same opening theme, performed by The Engine Crew. (Synergy!)

Lynne Thigpen’s ACME Chief addresses the player. Credit: Old Games

The player’s goal is to find each villain, locate the stolen item, and restore the course of history. They’re led in this task by Thigpen’s ACME Chief, who appears in live-action videos, and are accompanied by one of five Good Guides, helpful ACME agents who debuted in the 1996 World game. 

Good Guide Ann Tickwittee meets Hatshepshut in Ancient Egypt. Credit: My Abandonware

Chase is divided into twenty cases, the first of which takes place in Ancient Egypt and the last of which involves chasing Carmen herself throughout time. The player travels through history using the Chronoskimmer, a device introduced in the Time TV show.  Along the way, players meet a variety of historical figures and can access hints and historical information using the Chronopedia  – an Encyclopedia Britannica-approved in-game resource – as well as an impressively comprehensive supplemental website.

Consulting the Chronopedia. Credit: My Abandonware

While the episodic structure of Chase would be familiar to anyone who had played a game in the Carmen Sandiego series up to this point, the game itself is significantly different from past titles. For the first time in the series, Chase is a proper point-and-click adventure, complete with inventory, dialogue, and puzzles. (It was also originally released on two discs, a rarity for edutainment games.)

This new gameplay direction for the series was envisioned by Broderbund employee Jim Everson, who, in Ken Goldstein’s words, “wanted to have Carmen Sandiego become a sequential adventure game and insert video bits of storytelling along the way.” There isn’t much information online about Everson’s career; born in 1965, his earliest MobyGames credit is for the 1992 Deluxe Edition of World, and his last is for the Rugrats adventure game released by Broderbund in 1998. Everson passed away in 2010, and it’s unclear whether he was properly recognized for his contribution to Chase’s creation during his lifetime. 

Chase and the Where in Time TV show began as closely linked properties – in addition to the many aspects of the TV show incorporated into the game, Chase was also given away as a prize during the show’s second season. However, the legacy of Great Chase Through Time ultimately outlived the show that inspired it. 

Chase received highly positive reviews and several high-profile awards. The Time TV show, on the other hand, ended after its second season with only 115 episodes released and a single Emmy to its name: a 1998 Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Lighting Direction. (Goldstein attributes the show’s two-season run to difficulties in finding sponsors for a third season and the high costs of the show’s computer-animated elements.)

The adventure game-inspired Chase heavily influenced Carmen Sandiego titles going forward; most subsequent games in the series resemble point-and-click adventures in their mechanics or overall aesthetic. The multiple locations and clues-based gameplay of previous titles did share some resemblance to classic adventure games, but Chase was the first Carmen property that directly reflected the influence of adventure titles on mid-Nineties edutainment.

Most importantly, Chase appears to be the first property in the Carmen Sandiego franchise to present Carmen’s new backstory. Carmen had been originally conceived as an “agent, double agent, triple agent and quadruple agent for so many countries that even she has forgotten which one she is working for.” However, Chase reveals that Carmen was actually a former ACME agent, and that sending her cronies back in time was merely a distraction so Carmen could steal her ACME employee file and hide this aspect of her past. 

Chase, which could have so easily become a half-baked product of corporate synergy, instead turned out an influential and forward-thinking title that one might argue redefined an entire franchise. This wouldn’t be the last time that financial circumstances would dictate the artistic direction of the Carmen franchise, but it shows that even with these less-than-ideal constraints, a noteworthy game could emerge as a result. 

Next time: We continue our Summer of Carmen Sandiego with the 1997 language-themed title Word Detective. See you then!