Where in America's Past is Carmen Sandiego? (computer game) (evaluation)
by Clayton Walnum
COMPUTE CHOICE. With you on the job, even Carmen Sandiego can't toy with the great American past.
Ever since the indomitable Carmen Sandiego began her capers back in 1985, computerists the world over have been trying to track her down. But whenever she's busted, Ms. Sandiego gets back on the streets faster than a jail door swings. You just can't keep a bad woman down. After wreaking havoc in Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? Where in the U.S.A. Is Carmen Sandiego?, Where in Europe Is Carmen Sandiego?, and Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego?, she's back with her trusty time machine, causing trouble across the length, breadth, and history of the United States of America.
In Where in America's Past Is Carmen Sandiego?, you hop in your Chronoskimmer 450SL and follow the Sandiego gang as they leap from time to time, starting prior to 1800 and going all the way up to the present day. (Well, up to 1988, anyway.) Although your goal may be a good arrest, along the way you'll learn much about important times in America's history, from the discoveries of the first explorers to the inventions of Thomas Edison to the introduction of rap music.
A typical game begins when ACME headquarters briefs you on the most current V.I.L.E. (Villains' International League of Evil) caper and issues you a Chronoskimmer for a specific period of time. At the start of a case, you know only the crime and the criminal's gender. To complete your mission, you must identify, locate, and arrest the criminal before your time expires. The execution of most commands consumes time, so you must examine clues carefully and avoid taking unnecessary trips or requesting redundant information.
Because Broderbund's America is divided into five geographic regions, each of which can be visited in any of nine time periods, guesswork will yield poor results. You must examine each clue to determine both the region and time period to which the criminal has fled. The game's documentation advises you to "refer to your personal volume of What Happened When." Study this impressive tome carefully and become thoroughly familiar with its organization. The book contains for too much information for anyone to simply memorize.
Luckily, your first time jump is automatic, zapping you to the last place the criminal was sighted. When you arrive at your destination, your view screen offers a scene from the region in the appropriate time period, after which you start your investigation by choosing Ask a Bystander, Consult a Source, or Listen In. Whichever clue you choose, the interviewee will give information that may point to the criminal's next destination, time period, or both.
For example, a typical clue may read, "She said she was going to donate copies of the new book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, to a library in Austin." By looking up books in What Happened When's index, you find Uncle Tom's Cabin listed with a publication date of 1852. You now know your target has fled to the Southwest (Austin) in the year 1852 (you've also learned a little about classic literature, but don't let that worry you), and you didn't even have to read the full entry in the book! Pressing the Chronoskimmer's map button brings up a map of the U.S. on your view screen. You select the 1850-1875 time zone and the Southwest region and press the launch button, and you're off.
When you arrive in the Southwest, you learn that "the first Texas cattle drive began in 1866 when a herd of 260,000 cattle was moved north, proving that cattle could be driven to market." Interesting though this fact may be, it doesn't help your search. But pressing the Search button allows you to question the witnesses.
As you search for clues, headquarters may send electronic mail, which gives you the latest lowdown on your suspect. Clues like "She had ruby-colored hair" let you narrow down the suspects. Enter the information into your crime computer. Once you know enough about the villain, you're issued a warrant.
The game continues in this fashion until you capture the suspect or run out of time. Sometimes, you may catch up with the suspect before you have a valid warrant, in which case, the suspect gets off - and you get chewed out by headquaters. If you end up with a warrant for the wrong person, you'll really feel like a dink.
Where in America's Past Is Carmen Sandiego? supports most graphics modes, including CGA, EGA, and VGA. Although obviously best played in VGA mode, the game's EGA mode is an acceptable alternative, with the CGA graphics being better than one might expect but still tough on the old orbs. The VGA graphics are stunning, with many scenes rendered from digitized photos.
Not all the graphics are static scenes, however. Each time you jump to one of V.I.L.E.'s locations, a Sandiego henchperson makes an appearance in a carefully crafted, always amusing animation. I won't give away any of the surprises. Suffice it to say that,with a full dozen of these cartoonlike intermissions built in, you'll continue to enjoy them for many games. (If you don't see an intermission after a time jump, you jumped to the wrong location or time.)
While the straight PC-generated sound effects are OK, this game puts sound cards like Ad Lib and Sound Blaster through their paces. The professionally composed music is reminiscent of that of hard-boiled detective dramas, with a splash of sexy-cool jazz thrown in to keep you grinning and bobbing. The sound effects accompanying a time jump rattle your chair and echo spookily as you snap into your chosen slot in history.
No software is perfect, of course. When played using a Sound Blaster card, Where in America's Past Is Carmen Sandiego? sometimes leaves a note or two hanging, yielding a droning sound that can drive you wacky if it goes on too long. (This also may happen with other sound cards.) I also didn't care for the method by which the player gathers clues. Any software built upon a fictional scenario must maintain that all-important suspension of disbelief. Clicking on a button labeled Ask a Bystander or Listen In reminds you that you are, after all, just playing a game. It would've been much more effective to have a person's portrait pop up, as though you were truly questioning people met randomly in the street. As the game stands, the Clue buttons might as well be labeled Clue 1, Clue 2, and Clue 3 for all they add to the game's scenario. These are minor quibbles, however, when compared with the overall quality of the program.
Although the gameplay varies only slightly from one title to the next, these games continue to be entertaining and, best of all, painlessly educational - a tough combination to beat. As parents proved to their kids over five years ago when the first charming Carmen Sandiego adventure was released, learning can be fun. Where in America's Past Is Carmen Sandiego? is a must-have package for anyone interested in superior and engaging educational software.