Did you know that, when the Globe Theater caught fire in 1613 during a showing of All Is True, it burned to the ground in one hour?  And that the cause was the misfiring of a cannon during the play, because they used real cannons in the performance, and the theater remained packed for a while before anyone realized it was on fire, which makes it all the more remarkable that no one was injured?  And that although no one was injured, one man’s breeches caught on fire, and he put out the flames with a bottle of ale?

I learned all this from what I would argue is the best educational video game of the ‘90s: Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time.

All ‘90s kids know about Carmen Sandiego, because despite never knowing where in the world she was, she seemed to be everywhere.  According to Wikipedia, she had three television shows, over a dozen books, a comic series, a card game, a board game, a concert series, two planetarium shoes, and two music albums.   

You might falsely remember that Carmen Sandiego was a game by The Learning Company, which gave us such classics as Oregon Trail and Reader Rabbit.  But The Learning Company didn’t acquire Carmen Sandiego until 1998.  She came to life in 1988 under Brøderbund Software, Inc., and Brøderbund made 14 video game titles before they ceased to exist and passed her mantle over to The Learning Company.

It was their 12th title I’ll be talking about today, Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time, a reboot of Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego?  I firmly believe this is one of the greatest educational point-and-click adventure games of all time.  (See what I did there?)

And you don’t need to take my word for it.  It scored 4.5/5 stars from AllGame, 4/5 from U.S.A. Today, and 4.⅘ from Learning Village.  In 1998, it won a Codie award, an Interactive Achievement Award, and a D.I.C.E. award.

The game incorporated a classic ‘90s Western animation style with a live-action performance by actress Lynne Thigpen as “The Chief,” a character she also played on the PBS Carmen Sandiego game show.

The game offers 3 – 6 hours of play time, depending on how good you are at solving the puzzles and how much clicking around you want to do, and takes you on a 19-chapter adventure.

Here’s a quick rundown:

1490 B.C.: You help Pharaoh Hatshepsut make a mummy.  Did you know that Hatshepsut reigned for 20 years; she was a female ruler but depictions of her are stylized as male, including a fake beard?

Screenshot.

50 B.C.: You help Julius Caesar fix the Roman aqueducts.  Did you know the ancient Romans used heavy metals like lead in their pipes?  Whoops.  They also didn’t use soap for bathing, but olive oil.

1002: You gather Lief Erikson’s crew to retrieve a ship stolen by one of Carmen’s bad guys.  Did you know Wednesday is named for the Norse god Odin?

1015: You aid Murasaki, author of “The Tale of Genji,” write her book.  Did you know women in the Heian period of Japan were forbidden from learning Chinese?  (But Murasaki was self-taught and incredibly proficient.)

1086: You help William the Conqueror end a siege in Normandy.  Did you know that the surname “Cooper” stems from the European trade of bending timber staves into barrels and buckets?

1271: You help Marco Polo and Kublai Khan meet for the first time.  Kublai Khan was the grandson of Genghis Khan and founder of the Yuan dynasty in China.  Did you know that the white mulberry tree is native to China, and the favored food of silkworms?

1324: You aid Mansa Musa get ready for his pilgrimage.  The richest man who ever lived, Mansa Musa brought somewhere between 15 and 18 tons of gold with him from Mali to Mecca, and gave away so much that he destabilized the precious metal in Cairo and other large cities.

1454: You help Gutenburg fix his printing press.  Gutenburg produced a total of 180 Bibles during his lifetime, and each page took about one day to make.

Pages back then were printed on vellum, a paper-thin calfskin membrane.

1460: You help Incan emperor Pachacuti Yupanqui count up his supply stores to pack onto llamas and send out to his various needy provinces.  Did you know the Incans kept records using a device called a quipu, which was a cord tied with knots to count large sums?

1493: You cross the Pacific on behest of Queen Isabella to hunt down Christopher Colombus, who has gone missing.  Did you know that the Atlantic “Westerlies” are so named because they blow from the west and push ships eastward, back toward Europe?

1505: You head to Italy to help Leonardo diVinci complete the Mona Lisa.  Did you know that a cam wheel’s basic attribute is to transfer energy from “spinning” motions to linear, “up and down” motions?

1519: You help Aztec emperor Montezuma create a ceremonial headdress.  Did you know that the capital city of Tenochtitlan took two centuries to build, because it required the Aztecs to drain marshland and construct canals?

1599: You help William Shakespeare complete the construction of the Globe Theater.  The Globe Theater was unique among theaters because it was the first to be made for and financed by a specific play company.  The original Globe theater had six shareholders.  Shakespeare wasn’t the biggest shareholder; that honor goes to the Burbage brothers, two of the actors in his company.

1776: You go back in time to help Thomas Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence.  Did you know that Jefferson invented the dumbwaiter and had five installed at his estate in Monticello?

I really like that the game includes subtitles.

1805: You help Lewis and Clark retrieve their notes while exploring the Louisiana Purchase.  Did you know that the guide Sacagawea was from the Shoshoni nation (called the “Snake Indians” by Lewis and Clark, after the Snake River)?  At the Columbia river, she traded her beaded belt for a buffalo fur robe to gift to president Jefferson.

1808: You help Mozart rearrange some of his symphonies.  Did you know that the sousaphone was not invented until 1893, and was designed specifically to be played while carried or standing, as opposed to the concert tuba, which is played sitting down?

1879: You help Edison obtain a cotton-filament thread to build a lightbulb.  Did you know Edison tested hundreds of different materials for lightbulb filament, and considered tungsten, which is what is used in the modern bulb?

1961: You help program Yuri Gagarin’s space ship for launch.  Did you know that Yuri was 5’2”?  Gagarin was only supposed to get a code to take manual control in case of emergency, but the lead engineer, Sergei Korolev, gave him the code prior to the flight.

Present Day: You hop through all of the previous chapters hunting down Carmen herself!

Wow.  Look at all we learned!

Every chapter has its own mini-game and, while the focus of the game overall is to learn about history, it does a great job of incorporating other elements.  For example, you learn about music with Mozart, forced perspective with Leonardo diVinci, and math with  Pachacuti Yupanqui.  Many of the games lean on deductive reasoning skills, and it’s surprisingly fun to play, even as an adult.  (Case in point: I spent over six hours watching YouTube playthroughs of it in order to write this article.)

The dialogue is chock-full of puns and dad jokes, and each of the characters is lovingly crafted with little idiosyncrasies.  (My favorite bad guy is probably Jacqueline Hyde, while my favorite good guy is probably Ann Tickwittee.)

Bless these pixelated little villains.

You can watch a play-through here.  Good luck finding a playable version of the game, though.  Even if you do, it will require an emulator to run it, as it was only designed to be run on Windows ‘95 and Windows ‘97.  Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time is what’s known as abandonware – a game that has been discarded by the creators and now, as operating systems advance without it, eventually falls off the face of the earth because it’s prohibitively difficult to run and has no official technical support or platform.

In my opinion this is a real tragedy, because while most learning games lean severely toward either “fun but not very educational” or “educational but not very fun,” Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time is a genuinely engaging little game that feels a lot like an interactive television show.  It’s a game I would absolutely enjoy sharing with my children when they’re old enough to appreciate it, but one that’s become increasingly difficult to track down.

Letting old video games (especially ones with as much artistic value and research as this one) disappear is something we should work harder to prevent; video games are an artform, and this one in particular has so much value to it.

Two whole CDs’ worth of content!

While I don’t have a link for you to play it yourself, I can point you to a site with some other great “abandonware” games.  ClassicReload.com one of many“preservation sites” with over 6,000 titles (including one of my childhood favorites, O’Dell Down Under), and it acts as a sort of online orphanage for works like Carmen Sandiego, lest they be lost forever.  It runs an emulator onsite so you don’t have to download anything, but if want to dig deeper, there are larger libraries of games that you can run if you have the right software, and many games that waiting to be discovered, like some kind of time heist clue in a Carmen Sandiego game.

Preserving video games for future generations may seem like a fool’s errand, when one considers the ways in which graphics and playthrough have advanced, but I would argue that some games are timeless.  (See what I did there?)  This is one of them, and if you can get your hands on it, I wholeheartedly recommend you put aside a few hours to chase Carmen through history.

Happy gaming (and learning)!