That’s Edutainment: Carmen Sandiego Math Detective

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

We’re continuing this column’s first-ever miniseries – the Summer of Carmen Sandiego! This summer’s articles focus on games from the Carmen Sandiego series, how they fit into the surprisingly weird history of the franchise, and their legacy as edutainment. (The previous article in this miniseries was about Carmen Sandiego Word Detective.) The header image is from TERC

Today, we’re looking at the next game in our miniseries: the 1998 title Carmen Sandiego Math Detective. Let’s begin!

How do you follow up a game that wasn’t meant to happen? Word Detective was completely unintentional; a title initially unrelated to the Carmen Sandiego series suddenly revamped into becoming the long-running franchise’s newest entry – purely for economic reasons. Perhaps by virtue of the fact that it wasn’t part of a carefully curated brand strategy, Word Detective was darker and more serious than any previous game released with Carmen’s name on the box. 

In an event like this, several options present themselves: lean into the seriousness that madeWord Detective so distinctive; return to the franchise’s more lighthearted roots; or attempt a combination of these two approaches. Math Detective takes the third route, and becomes a weird, fascinating mesh of ideas and tones as a result. 

The Math Detective cover art. Credit: The Learning Company.

Math Detective was released in 1998, the year after Word Detective’s release. (IMDb claims Math came out in January 1998.) In this tine, Carmen has shrunk twelve world wonders – from the Golden Gate Bridge to Ayers Rock – into tiny gems with the help of her latest invention, the Quantum Crystallizer. (The Quantum Crystallizer, which sounds like a gadget from an old episode of Doctor Who, is powered by a meteor with mystical qualities called the Prometheus Rock.)

Meet the Quantum Crystallizer. Credit: Broderbund/The Learning Company.

As with many of her schemes, Carmen has additional goals – in this case, to drain worldwide power systems and, with this newfound source of energy, make her new headquarters impenetrable. The player, naturally, must foil Carmen’s geography-themed plan by solving… math problems

While the plot of Math Detective feels very much like something out of a classic Carmen title from the 1980s, the game draws its mechanics and structure from its immediate predecessor, Word Detective. As with Word Detective, the player – here, in the role of ACME Agent 9 – explores the hideouts of twelve of Carmen’s lackeys, completes themed exercises to gain passwords, and uses those passwords to locate each gem. (It’s unclear whether this is a different agent than Word Detective’s Agent 13, or if Agent 13 got a promotion.)

The player is once again guided by Carmen’s former partner, ACME agent Chase Devineaux, who checks in with the player through video messages and occasionally engages in verbal sparring with Carmen herself. (While the player rescues world wonders, Chase searches for a way to destroy the Prometheus Rock.) Chase, like everyone else in Math Detective, treats the situation with the utmost seriousness, clashing with the game’s inherently goofy premise. (This is a game in which Carmen shrinks the Caspian Sea.)  I do like Math Detective’s opening sequence, which places us directly in Agent 9’s shoes as they infiltrate Carmen’s headquarters:

I’m sorry to say that many of the other stylistic elements of Math Detective don’t quite work for me. The interface looks cramped and overly busy, which extends to the exercises themselves – minigames like Atom Smasher, in which the player solves timed math problems, have too many visual elements for my liking. To me, the overall colour scheme of purple, teal and gray seems inexorably Nineties – it’s the same hues as the Solo Jazz design – and unfortunately dated as a result. 

The Atom Smasher mini game. Credit: TERC.

Most of the villain hideouts are brightly-lit and take place in anonymous industrial areas, compared to the shadowy and personalized environments of Word Detective. The villains themselves are often underwhelming, and their one-on-one confrontations with the player have very little dramatic impact. (No-one unzips their skin to reveal their lizard self this time!)

A. Leon Being is one of the few standout villains. Credit: Broderbund/The Learning Company.

This all feels like an overcorrection from Word Detective; I suspect that the game’s dark storyline and menacing villains were not enthusiastically received by the entirety of its intended young audience. It seems like Math Detective, with its more lighthearted tone and secondary focus on geography, was meant as more of a throwback to classic Carmen titles than an extension of the aesthetic in Word Detective. And that’s fine – it makes for a more interesting game than if it were an exact copy of its predecessor’s darker aesthetic and tone.

I do really like a number of things about Math Detective. (I don’t regret making that pun.) This time, Carmen’s scheme is straightforward and has clearly-defined objectives; everything leads back to her plans for VILE HQ. (But think of the electrical bills!) The variously-shaped crystals themselves play a major role in the final puzzle – they’re used to create a matching sequence that shuts down the Quantum Crystallizer. 

Chase and Carmen once again make an entertaining duo, and get a nice moment of closure in the ending cutscene. I could easily imagine a spinoff set back in their days as ACME agents. 

Sadly, Math Detective would be the last Carmen Sandiego game Broderbund would ever make — under the studio’s own name, at least. In 1998, Broderbund was purchased by The Learning Company (which itself had been acquired by another company in 1995). As a result, subsequent titles in the Carmen series listed TLC as both developer and publisher. That said, Math Detective wasn’t the last game to feature Chase Devineaux and this particular iteration of Carmen. 

ThinkQuick Challenge gameplay. Credit: Carmen Sandiego Wiki.

In 1999, TLC released Carmen Sandiego’s ThinkQuick Challenge, a quiz-based title in which Carmen’s lackeys and robots steal all of the world’s knowledge, and the player answers themed questions in order to capture each of Carmen’s cronies. The game includes several characters from Word/Math Detective and Great Chase Through Time, and appears to have involved some of the same staff, but I personally don’t find it interesting enough to warrant a full article. (ThinkQuick does include multiplayer and allows the player to create their own questions; I’ll admit that both of these aspects are notable.) Chase Devineaux would recur in the 2019 Netflix animated series, albeit as a new character with a different appearance and voice actor. Not much else from this era has remained an aspect of the franchise in the modern day. 

Even though Broderbund’s run with the Carmen Sandiego series ends here, it’s important to acknowledge how far the franchise had come in almost fifteen years’ time. (This is, after all, a series whose first title initially struggled to sell copies and only became popular a year and a half after its release.) If you had told someone involved in the creation of 1985’s Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? that their game would spawn a multimedia empire and become one of the biggest franchises in edutainment, I don’t know if they would have believed you. It seems fitting that Math Detective, with its blend of both modern and classic elements, would be Broderbund’s final title in one of the studio’s most influential series.

Next time: The Summer of Carmen Sandiego enters the twenty-first century with 2001’s Treasures of Knowledge. See you then!