Carmen Sandiego’s 90s CD-ROM Games Should Have Made Me Realize I Was Bisexual

In the darkness, you saw long brown hair and a wide-brimmed red hat. A sultry voice interrupted your communications, taunting nearby detectives. You wondered how she did that, how she kept slipping away from you. She committed impossible robberies while looking cool and striking terror. She stole many things, including my heart, when I grew up and realized I couldn’t play her games anymore.

Carmen Sandiego, in hindsight, should have made me realize that I was bisexual. She ended up not doing that, because I didn’t even know the term existed until I was a teenager; Alison Bechdel had to provide this awakening with her memoir fun house. That and Carmen Sandiego isn’t real. She’s a villain from a game franchise.

The biggest thief of edutainment entertainment of the 90s

A quick rundown for those who’ve never pursued her: in most Carmen Sandiego CD-ROM games of the 90s, she was a shameless thief. Most of the canons confirmed that she had previously worked for the Criminal Classification and Supervision Agency. The ACME leader, played by the late Lynne Thigpen in various shows and games, explained that Carmen rose through the ranks as a detective. Eventually, however, catching crooks became too easy for her; as a challenge, Carmen betrayed ACME. She even called her past “embarrassing”.

According to the game’s canon, two different ACME agents claimed that they had been Carmen’s partner. Chase Devineaux in the Word and math detective maintained a dry cynicism, while Julia Argent in the treasures of knowledge game saw the good of Carmen. The two had chemistry with Carmen during their interactions, reminiscent of one of the bitter exes.

A Cannon Kept the Chemistry But Changed the Dynamic: Netflix’s 2019 Carmen Sandiego show turned Carmen into a heroic thief. The VILE criminals raised her as their new weapon, but Carmen rebelled upon realizing they wanted her to kill innocent people. She stole from criminals to donate to charity or return items to their true owners. Julia and Chase appeared on the Netflix show, with their personalities drastically changed. As Julia has become less active and more observant, Chase has evolved from a cold-headed tough guy to an impulsive and stubborn Javert archetype. They both admitted that Carmen was hard to catch, but attractive.

Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? screenshot
Image: Broderbund

Why Carmen Sandiego?

The Netflix series started its pilot by asking “Who is Carmen Sandiego?” Most of his games asked “where” questions. After all, she could sail to another country and steal a great historical monument in minutes. That said, why is Carmen Sandiego? Why do we love it? What makes her attractive and a great villain?

Carmen’s adrenaline junkie tendencies made her attractive; the Netflix adaptation continued this trend. She taunted the player character, dropping hints of her next heist. If the crooks were caught? She blamed them for their incompetence.

Even time travel has not escaped him. She stole an ACME device called the Chronoskimmer, ordering her VILE henchmen to traverse time and seize historical artifacts. Carmen ended the match by leading the players on a time chase. Once caught, she bragged that the prison’s high-tech laser bars couldn’t hold her. You had to admire the braggadocio.

The clothes also reflected the confidence of the thief. Carmen wore a bright red outfit, but she was notoriously hard to spot on her flights. We know she was a master of disguise when needed and could even slouch down to adjust her height. Her coat made her stand out from the crowd, but she knew when to switch to a plain dress and a wig. The look remains stunning 30 years later.

Carmen was also obsessed with your character. We played as adults in the game because neither ACME nor Interpol would hire a child to take down an international criminal. We fascinated her, because we could find her without sweating. You could see it in Where in the United States, where in timeand word detective, where Carmen sends her crooks all over the United States. If you traveled that many times from the east coast to the west coast, you would be exhausted. Not Carmen, however, or the player. You stayed on his tail, ready to growl. Good guides have followed your lead, beating criminals or throwing handcuffs when necessary.

crush on a bad guy

Carmen appealed to my bisexuality in multiple ways. She ticked the criteria for threatening the bad guys, inviting real stakes into a conflict. If she left the heroes alive, there had to be a legitimate reason, like a giant flaw, or either side getting hurt in their more serious confrontations. I admired Carmen for being utterly terrifying at her worst.

Carmen was an explicit threat. In her best matches, she showed no qualms about the moral hazard of her actions. Steal the Forum from the Romans? This could bring the empire down faster than it did in real life. Ripping out the prototype light bulb so Thomas Edison couldn’t benefit from Tesla’s plagiarism? No one can do the necessary shifts like the on-call doctors. Carmen also had no limit to what she could fly. Sometimes she and her crooks ripped off national monuments.

word detective showed Carmen at her worst in terms of naughtiness. She had developed a machine, the Babble-On Machine, which could steal written language from the mouth and brain. This is bad enough for those with communication issues or language barriers. Carmen, however, planned to steal the language of the world. The beam would scramble people’s brains.

A cutscene shows two characters looking at tall buildings in the distance

Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? treasures of knowledge screenshot
Image: The Learning Society

I refused to play or even watch word detective like a kid. It was too creepy. As an adult, the opening remains pure nightmarish fuel. Carmen’s Babble-On Machine has captured Ann Tickwittee, the longtime good guide. Ann, called Agent 12, had beaten up bigger crooks before. The fact that the tower grabbed and chained her, along with Rock Solid and many other good guides, established that Carmen had upped her game. Carmen also subjected the agents to the beam. All they could do was gibberish for help while you infiltrate the lair. It was rather perverse for a children’s game.

It took until I was an adult to realize that the game wouldn’t hurt you. There was no stakes as you searched for clues to puzzles and keys to free your good guides. You can take your time, reset, and not worry about anything worse than a few jumps. This game, however, was pretty formative for how I’ve seen good villains. It also solidified the way I saw Carmen. She was bad, but she was good.

Turn off computer screen

It’s a shame it’s nearly impossible to play a 90s Carmen game now. You have to know how to run an emulator that mimics a Windows screen from the 2000s, download the files from a website that maintains Carmen’s love, and troubleshoot. I once spent an entire night trying to do this and failed miserably, even with a friend’s advice. Carmen disappeared after the oldest computer in our house decided to shut down forever.

The Carmen Sandiego of my childhood exists in a CD installer that no longer works, some booklets that we kept, and YouTube Let’s Plays. Yet she will never leave, with the nostalgia we have. Not the wake-up calls hindsight can bring, when you see brown hair blowing in the wind.

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Jack L. Goldstein