Tuesday, 19 September 2006

Fond memories of Carmen Sandiego

Our generation (i.e people born 1980-1984) have a truckload of shared experiences that draw us together. We all remember shonky television shows like Mulligrubs (with that freaky floating face thing that talked in a crazy helium voice and terrified the children), our first memory of chart music involved either MC Hammer, Milli Vanilli or Vanilla Ice, and our first crack at a computer invariable involved driving that LOGO turtle around the screen on a rubbish Apple IIE somewhere in a dingy school computer lab. 

I still don’t know what that turtle was supposed to represent. The endless, and useless, struggle that is human life? Were you trying to draw pictures or were they covertly explaining that the boundaries of the screen represented the world and that you, as the turtle, were destined to float around aimlessly forever achieving something that looked decent but ultimately marking time until you inevitably “closed the program” and died? Whatever the meaning was they were certainly hiding it well because I spent two years trying to work it out and never came up with anything.

But there’s one thing that, above all others, stands out as the cultural touchstone of an entire generation. One thing that every child in Australia who went near a computer was exposed to at one point or another and we all have fond memories of. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…

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What a game. Almost certainly the only way to get geography over to “the kids”. Even the ones who’d realise two years later that computers were only useful to decide which person should be belted, and a few years later that you could view naked people on them were into Carmen at the time. You’d never get away with this sort of thing at the time, but in the mid 80’s it had all the kiddies discussing whether or not a red and white flag meant Canada or Poland. Now it’s all sexual favours in the yard and heroin injection in the school longjump pit. I merged cultural highlights and played Carmen on an Apple IIE in the Hawthorn Library circa 1988/89 (whenever I was in Grades 1 and 2). 

I spent a ridiculous amount of time in that place because I had nowhere else to go after school so I just showed up there and dominated all the games on that computer. Is it sad to have so few fond memories of childhood that the day you finally held every single world record on Summer AND Winter Olympics on a public library’s computer is amongst the great days of your life? I think it is, but it was a significant and dominant achievement nonetheless. When I wasn’t tonking virtual cross-country skiing it was all Carmen. I credit the game with the ridiculously over the top knowledge of geography that I had, with no cause to EVER use, in school. Of course I hit year seven and most of it was forgotten, but it was nice while it lasted. And when you’re at a trivia night and they start asking you which national capital is the highest in the world above sea level I’ll be the voice in your head shouting “IT’S LA PAZ, BOLIVIA YOU FOOL!”

The point of the game, for those of you who were living under a rock/not born/had something better to do at the time, is that you’re a detective employed by the creatively titled “ACME Detective Agency” who is sent around the world to track down important historical items pinched by the evil members of the “VILE” crime gang. The historical items were always something ridiculous like a viking monument, or the chandelier from the Sydney Opera House but occasionally they completely lost the plot and claim that you had to recover the Staten Island Ferry or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And how exactly were they pinched? Did somebody stuff the ceiling down their shirt? Did nobody notice it mysteriously disappearing? Farcical, but not so much that it destroyed the mystique of the chase. The evil criminals that you were against were as follows,

Carmen Sandiego
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Leader of VILE and, let’s be frank, a stone cold digital fox. Carmen is the “big boss” who you eventually have to round up after you’ve gone through the rest of the stooges twenty times each. She used to be a spy for the Monaco intelligence service, loves tacos, is never seen in public without her ruby necklace (probably nicked, though they never elaborate), enjoys playing tennis and drives a 1939 Convertable. Stylish lady. What’s never explained is what she’s got to do with San Diego, and why given that ACME HQ was in Los Angeles they couldn’t just drive down the road and nick her at home. Talk about a bureaucracy.

Merey LeRoc

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Listed as a “freestyle aerobic dancer”, which I presume is a kid friendly 80’s metaphor for chronic alcoholic and kleptomaniac. Despite the tennis racquet in her photo her hobby is listed as mountain climbing, and she’s said to have a love of spicy foods. She has an “absolute mania” for fancy jewellry and drives a fancy limousine. And she’s a complete pushover. Get ready to spend most of your time pinching her in various locations around the world. How does she keep getting released? What’s the point of nicking Carmen if everyone else in her gang just walks out the door ten minutes after they’re arrested? Not surprisingly as children we never took time out of our busy schedules to ponder these questions.

Dazzle Annie Nonker

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The world’s most evil yoghurt bar owner. Enjoys tennis - which seems to be a theme throughout the game - and also drives a limo. Has an “incredible” appetite for seafood and is “said” to have a tattoo, which seems to indicate she’s got it somewhere that video game audiences weren’t destined to see until the internet became popular.

Lady Agatha Wayland

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There’s no explanation of just how this Angela Lansbury-esque character got into a violent international crime syndicate. Especially given that her occupation is “reading upper-class English mystery stories”. Must have decided that she needed more entertainment in her life. Also enjoys tennis (I think they’re suggesting that anyone who wields a racquet is a criminal) and has a diamond ring “the size of a grapefruit”. Is said to drive her Denby Roadster through the countryside looking for Mexican restaurants. Which is going to be a long search in England. Take no crap from Lady Agatha.

Len Bulk

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If the black eye and wad of cash doesn’t give it away he’s a crooked ex-hockey player. I believe the story is that he threw a game for cash, got busted and had to go on the run and became a super-criminal instead. For reasons unknown he’s got a tattoo of a mermaid on his thumb and enjoys mountain climbing. Len is the first person in the game to have absolutely no connection to tennis whatsoever. He does, however, love seafood. Nicknamed Red.

Scar Graynolt

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The world’s deadliest folk guitarist. Scar is into croquet, drives a limousine with tinted windows and has a five carat pinky ring. He can eat his own wait in tacos and has a 7 foot manservant called “The Asp”. Not that The Asp is ever seen, heard from or mentioned again - but it’s a nice touch nonetheless. There must be a lot of money in folk guitar.

Nick Brunch

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Ex-private eye who still wears his crimefighter's ring, despite being a villain. Rides a motorbike, goes wild for Mexican food, prefers “soiled trenchcoats” (!!!!?!?!) and “snap-brimmed fedoras”. Has a world class porno moustache and a gun. Which makes him instantly more scary than the tennis racquet wielding Merey LeRoc or the old woman with her books.

Fast Eddie B
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Other than being a world class Charlie Chaplin lookalike Fast Eddie is famous for being an “impeccably dressed jet-setter” and a champion croquet player. He always leaves a diamond stickpin at the scene of his crimes (which seems like a very good way to get caught if you ask me) and drives a convertible. Much like everyone else in this game he’s hot for Mexican food – but unlike everyone else he has no interest in the fine art of tennis.

Ihor Ihorovich
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My personal favourite. The original Ukranian Nightmare has a strange tattoo on his arm, lists his occupation as “pretender to the Czarist throne” and is said to be fascinated by large marsupials. He’s a huge croquet fan, drives a limo and enjoys eating lobsters whilst watching cartoons. Ihor is not a man to be taken lightly. He’s quite fearsome.

Katherine Drib

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Speaking of fearsome, “Boom Boom” Drib is the scariest one of them all. A world class motorbike racer, on her 1250cc Honcho bike, she is big on mountain climbing and has a tattoo of an eagle on her left bicep. When not motorbike racing or kicking your mf’ing teeth in she’s a gourmet seafood cook (which must come in handy when catering for VILE AGM comes up) and is “fascinated” with health and fitness. I have every reason to believe that this character was largely based on Rita Connors of Prisoner.

The game itself is fairly simple. You start off in the city where the item was stolen, predictably nobody saw the roof of the chapel being lifted but everyone’s got some sort of shonky “hint” to follow,

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Aha! Black hair! I’m one step closer. Buggered if I know where to go to make perfume though, time to visit another top Cairo destination,

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Eventually you’ll get enough evidence to put into the “crime computer” and get a warrant to arrest your suspect. You then track them to a city where they try to scare you off by dropping an anvil before getting nicked.
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Never fear. In three or four cases Nick Brunch will be wandering the streets pinching stuff again. How do they keep getting out? It’s a mystery to me.

Do this about 3000 times and you’ll end up going against Carmen herself. Take the mother down and you’ve rolled the game. The catch was that after every case you’d get asked a general knowledge geography question that you’d have to answer by looking up information in the world atlas and encyclopedia that came with the game. If your school had just knocked off a few copies and handed them out to the classes it necessitated a lightning bolt to the library to get the book and find the right clue. Then some other kid was trying to study something in it and it often turned ugly. Then you’d be asked to leave the library because of the all the yelling and would return to the class empty handed and be forced to have a wild stab at the answer. So if you didn’t know off-hand that Antwerp had hosted the 1920 Summer Olympics you were finished. Cue instant shame.

The game has been spun off into three hundred different versions over the years, all with new characters and scenarios. Where in Europe is Carmen Sandiego, Where in Space, the USA, time, the Universe, America’s Past etc.. etc.. How did she get time to do so much crime? How come she could still travel to the planet Neptune even after you’d arrested her? The good people at Broaderbund Software never told us. Perhaps they were a front for VILE all along? I guess we’ll never know now.

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