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Franchise / Carmen Sandiego

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Careful. She could steal this wiki.

Well, she glides around the globe and she'll flimflam every nation
She's a double-dealing diva with a taste for thievery
Her itinerary's loaded up with moving violations
Tell me, where, in the world, is Carmen Sandiego?
Rockapella's theme to Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego

Carmen Sandiego is an Edutainment Game series created by now-defunct Brøderbund Software in 1985. The series became phenomenally successful in the 1990s, spawning no fewer than three television shows, two on PBS and one on Fox, then falling into obscurity shortly around the Turn of the Millennium before resurrecting around The New '10s, starting on Facebook. The series is now owned by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. There probably have been plenty of games released, and Carmen just stole them all.

The standard case involves an educational quest to find The Loot, The Warrant and The Crook.

Carmen Isabella Sandiego is an international thief, and it's down to the Interpol-esque ACME Detective Agency to stop her plans. Fortunately, she plays Criminal Mind Games with her pursuers to provide the obligatory Alphabet Soup Cans. But don't worry; she's a Friendly Enemy—at least some of the time.

Her Back Story? Carmen was a star ACME agent until she decided that catching crooks was just too darn easy. Therefore, she did a Face–Heel Turn and became a Gentlewoman Thief. Then she decided to have Fun with Acronyms by founding an organization called the Villains' International League of Evil (V.I.L.E.). Although V.I.L.E. is progressive enough for Equal-Opportunity Evil, you absolutely must have a Punny Name to join.

The thievery of Carmen is second to none. She doesn't just steal jewels; she steals national monuments, even ones that should be physically impossible to "steal." For example, she once stole the Grand Canyon. Since the Grand Canyon is basically a giant hole in the ground, we shall leave it to you to figure out how that works. She's even been known to time travel, just so she can find more stuff to steal.

Plans to make a live-action movie starring the character by both Walt Disney Pictures and Walden Media (both Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Lopez have been suggested to play the role) have been in development hell since the late 1990s. However, it was announced in 2017 that Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin) had been tapped to portray the character in (and serve as a producer for) a live-action film to be produced by Netflix, which also spawned an animated series in 2019 with Rodriguez in the same role.

Games in the franchise include:

Carmen also makes a surprise crossover appearance in The ClueFinders: Mystery Mansion Arcade (2002).

TV shows in the franchise include:

The Carmen Sandiego franchise contains examples of:

  • Acme Products: Possibly parodied, as the name is given to a detective agency rather than a product.
    • Some versions combine this trope with the in-game suffix "-Net." At default it's "Acme Crime-Net," but it could also be "Time-Net" and in the game show it was often used as ACME (fill in the blank)-Net.
  • Affably Evil: She steals all kinds of items, and it's implied that she's doing this primarily for the thrill of it, but she's given a fairly endearing personality.
  • Affectionate Parody:
  • All There in the Manual: In a rather strange variation, some of the background information for the Acme detectives introduced in Treasures of Knowledge appears in the manual for Secret of the Stolen Drums.
  • Alternate Continuity: FOX's Where on Earth... series appears to have its own continuity. The two PBS shows may be set in the same universe, but that's not too clear since they have No Fourth Wall and are game shows. And don't even try to figure out which of the computer games take place in the same universe...
    • This appears to be the case with the 2019 animated Netflix series, if the traileris to be believed. V.I.L.E. exists independent of Carmen and recruited her to become a thief for them, and while Carmen is still very much a Gentlelady Thief as she always has been, it appears she Took a Level in Kindness and is now stealing treasures to keep them out of V.I.L.E.'s hands, instead of for the thrill of it.
    • It could be said Treasures of Knowledge, Secret of the Stolen Drums, and the DS game do form one continuity as they share a few common characters and Carmen's backstory, but the games can be played without Continuity Lockout being an issue.
  • Antagonist Title: Even if she's Affably Evil, Carmen Sandiego is clearly the antagonist.
  • Anti-Villain: While Carmen is a thief, the franchise tends to treat her as relatively harmless as she's not malicious and nobody is ever reported being hurt by her thefts. The 1994 cartoon occasionally had actual threats appear, in which Carmen would side with ACME to stop them. The 2019 cartoon ramps this up and makes her an Anti-Hero instead who only targets worse thieves than herself.
  • Art Shift: Has happened a few times. Two of the most notable are Word Detective and Math Detective, which make the series still have a rather cartoony look, but they look much Darker and Edgier compared to the earlier ones.
  • Badass in a Nice Suit: Carmen Sandiego's signature red Badass Longcoat and Fedora of Asskicking.
  • Big Bad Friend: The Facebook version occasionally enlists people from the player's friends list as some of Carmen's mooks.
  • Broad Strokes: The Brøderbund-era games tend to follow this, with only a few basic details staying consistent throughout the series. For example, ACME headquarters is always in San Francisco, at least every time it's mentioned, but the actual appearance of the building is completely different nearly every time it shows up.
  • Canon Immigrant:
    • Where on Earth established Carmen's Back Story as a former ACME detective, adopted by later games in the franchise.
    • Zack and Ivy, the two leads of Where on Earth, eventually appeared in Junior Detective. The AI Chief of that continuity and Guest Star Team Pet Stretch the Crime Dog appeared as well, the latter as an Ascended Extra.
  • Cardboard Prison: Extremely blatant: Carmen gets captured at the end of every computer game and maybe 30% to 50% of the time on the PBS game shows. Despite this, she's at large in the next game/episode. This also applies to many of the lesser villains.
  • Cheated Angle: More often than not, Carmen is depicted with her hat covering one of her eyes.
  • Classy Cat-Burglar: Carmen's practically an archetype.
  • Collection Sidequest: Finding all 450 amulets in Secret of the Stolen Drums. Not necessary for 100% Completion, but on the Sliding Scale of Collectible Tracking, it varies from "Could Be Anywhere" to Permanently Missable, especially since once you moved to the next location there was no way to travel back to a previous location. Just to make things worse, the PS2 version has one amulet Dummied Out for no apparent reason.
  • Continuity Reboot:
  • Copy Protection: Horrible, horrible copy protection. Arguably some of the most frustrating of all time. You can play all you want, but to get promoted and even have a chance to capture Carmen, you have to enter certain words from certain pages of the included travel guides every few cases. Sound easy enough? Then remember that these games were incredibly common in schools...where the manuals would often get lost. And even the teachers couldn't exactly summon new copies of a travel guide (now often several years, if not a decade out of date) at will.
  • Criminal Mind Games: It can depend on the game or other medium, but Carmen is often interpreted as leaving clues behind for detectives deliberately as a way to challenge herself.
  • Da Chief: There were a couple throughout the series, but perhaps the two most famous are Lynne Thigpen and the Computerized Holographic Imaging Educational Facilitator, both of which originated in the TV shows.
  • Depending on the Artist: Carmen always has the red coat and hat, but beyond that how she looks in any given depiction can vary quite a bit.
    • For example, the Where on Earth? cartoon kept her coat closed but showed a yellow scarf or collar around Carmen's neck. It also gave her black hair instead of the usual brown and icy blue eyes rather than dark colored eyes.
    • Mid-90s games had her coat open enough to see a yellow dress underneath. The 1996 game notably added a pearl necklace, which was critical to identify her among a crowd of imposters.
    • Later games had the coat completely open and over a black bodysuit, a look which debuted in 1999's Carmen Sandiego's ThinkQuick Challenge. The 2019 cartoon uses this outfit but shows both her eyes where traditionally at least one would be hidden from view, often by her hat.
  • Double Reverse Quadruple Agent: According to her backstory in the 80s version, Carmen was one of these, ostensibly for the small country of Monaco, but she decided she liked crime more than espionage. This was dropped after Where on Earth came up with the idea of Carmen being a former ACME agent instead.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness:
    • Games made prior to 1990 had the sight of a hand firing a warning shot from a gun or a knife/axe tossed across the screen to let you know you were closing in on a thief. It comes off as relatively violent to people who played the later games that had more comical animations (eg. an alligator snapping its jaws at the player, or a spring-loaded boxing glove punching into view) at the end of a case.
    • Carmen herself didn't have her trademark red trench coat and hat in the original games, but a standard beige one as seen on the cover.
    • You didn't work for ACME in the original game, but instead for Interpol.
    • Carmen's henchmen lack the Punny Names that the later games would become known for.
    • The crimes committed by Carmen and her gang were plausible, as opposed to the Impossible Theft in later works.note 
    • Early books and games made Carmen simple, if time-consuming, to catch. The idea of her always slipping away at the last minute started with the first Game Show and became a staple of the franchise from there.
  • Episodic Game: Adventures in Math on WiiWare.
  • Equal-Opportunity Evil: V.I.L.E. has about an equal number of men and women criminals.
  • Evil Gloating: Oh, how Carmen loves this. In any game where you receive messages from the Chief on a Video Phone, expect Carmen to occasionally break into your communications for gloating purposes.*
  • Evil Is Easy: Inverted. Carmen made her Face–Heel Turn specifically because evil was harder, and she wanted more of a challenge.
  • Expy:
    • Most likely an unintentional example, but Ivan Idea from the v3.0 games/Great Chase, Ben from the junior novels, Shadow Hawkins from Treasures of Knowledge, and Adam Shadow from the DS game share similar traits with Zack from Where on Earth (blonde-haired male detectives who happen to be tech-savvy). However, Adam borders on being not just an expy but also a Suspiciously Similar Substitute—not only does his default outfit looks near identical to Zack's outfit, considering the DS game is set in the same continuity as Treasures of Knowledge, Shadow is nowhere to be seen.
    • The ACME Detective Agency sort of started off as a fictionalized version of Interpol. In fact, in the original versions of World and USA, the organization you worked for actually was Interpol.
    • In the games released since 2000, The Chief of ACME is often designed as a Black Boss Lady (based on Lynne Thigpen's iconic portrayal from the game shows).
  • Eye-Obscuring Hat: One consistent design element of Carmen's is that she always has at least one eye hidden by her hat.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Carmen, way back when...
  • Fedora of Asskicking: She's never seen without her wicked-cool fedora.
  • For the Evulz
    The Nostalgia Chick: Carmen's not really in it for keeping the stuff but more the thrill of the hunt, but most of all, just proving she can.
  • Friendly Enemy: Carmen runs the gamut on this trope Depending on the Writer, varying from a borderline Anti-Hero in Where on Earth to what amounts to a Gender-Inverted, mustache-lacking Dastardly Whiplash in Where in Time, and everywhere in-between.
  • Fun with Acronyms: V.I.L.E. is pretty appropriate for a criminal organization.
  • Genre Shift: Secret of the Stolen Drums is a platformer, which is a far cry from previous games in the series.
  • Gentleman Thief: Carmen is a female version, considering she is generally cordial with her pursuers and doesn't cause harm other than stealing. Her stylish outfit certainly doesn't hurt her here, either.
  • Guide Dang It!: There are a few examples where they give a rather obscure hint that's not explained in-game because you're supposed to look in the guide book. The Facebook game justifies this because they know you're going to use Google.
  • He Who Must Not Be Seen: The Chief of the ACME Detective Agency is a mysterious, shadowy character in the early games. Later iterations had Chiefs like Lynne Thigpen, a posh British gentleman, and the Hologram Chief from Where on Earth.
  • Highly-Visible Ninja: That red trenchcoat with matching fedora won't help you sneak past ACME, Carmen.
  • How We Got Here: Secret of the Stolen Drums starts out with Cole explaining why he failed to obey the Chief's orders to return to headquarters. Repeatedly.
  • Impossible Theft:
    • The Mona Lisa's smile.
    • ALL the goulash.
    • All the tea in China.
    • Every last drop of salsa.
    • The Headwaters Of The Amazon Rivernote 
    • The entire Trans-Siberian Railwaynote 
    • The Olympic flamenote 
    • Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? worked hard to make Carmen Sandiego's seemingly outrageous crimes semi-plausible in their execution. A later plot to steal an uncracked Liberty Bell is accomplished by hijacking a Russian military time-travel project and then using it to travel back to the 18th century.
  • Improbable Age: Both ACME and V.I.L.E. seem to regularly employ teenagers. Zack and Ivy of the Earth cartoon are 14 and 18, respectively. Patty Larceny, Sarah Nade, and Jacqueline Hyde are teenagers, though their exact ages are never specified. According to the user's manual included with the 1997 version of Where in Time, Ivan Idea is a "teenage whiz kid" and Polly Tix is "still too young to vote". And that's not even taking into account the hundreds of kids who served as "gumshoes" and "time pilots" on the PBS gameshows. It actually appears that ACME was worse about this than V.I.L.E.
  • Intangible Theft:
    • Linguistic thefts:
      • The Portuguese language.
      • The English alphabet.
      • The Korean Hangeul alphabet.
      • The letter ñ in Spanish.
    • The alien henchwoman Kneemoi is responsible for most of the bizarre thefts, particularly of concepts that don't exist in any physical sense, like the following:
      • The Mason-Dixon Line, an imaginary line dividing the north and south of the United States of America.
      • The Portuguese language.
      • Tai chi, a martial art.
    • The Hope Diamond's shine.note 
    • The ABC: A television channel.note 
    • The International Date Line, an imaginary concept that is part of the basis for time.
    • The Internet.
    • Periods of history.
    • Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? worked hard to make Carmen Sandiego's seemingly outrageous crimes semi-plausible in their execution. One episode has her stealing the talent of famous athletes and musicians by using a prototype neural scanner to scramble their nervous systems while overlaying her own with an imprint of their abilities.
    • Knowledge of all types in ThinkQuick Challenge, even down to basics like alphabetical order.
  • It's a Small World, After All: The clues you are given are about the entire country the crook went to rather than any specific place. Fortunately, knowing just the country is always enough to get you to another destination with more clues.
  • Joker Immunity: She can be caught, but never held, no matter what version she appeared in. For example, the contestants in the game shows captured her by winning the bonus round, but that only lasted until the next show. It seems they've yet to make a jail strong enough to hold her. Carmen herself lampshades this after you finally catch her in the deluxe CD-ROM version of Where in the World?:
    "Stripes don't suit me. I won't be in them for long!"
  • Lady in Red: Carmen is never seen without her red coat, hat, and high heels.
  • Luck-Based Mission: In games made pre-1996, not every witness interviewed will yield characteristic traits of the suspect (hair color, vehicle, favorite food, etc.). It's possible to not have enough information to narrow down a suspect and issue a warrant at the time of the arrest even if you interviewed everyone during a case. This is especially problematic in early cases when there are fewer locations to travel and fewer witnesses to interview.
  • Medium Blending: In some of the games, Lynne Thigpen of the PBS game shows plays the Chief in live-action footage, while everyone else is a cartoon character. Try to figure that one out. Also, in some of the older games, the characters are cartoons running around in still photographs.
  • Missing Steps Plan: 1. Steal huge national monuments/treasures/etc. 2. ??? (As far as is known, neither Carmen nor any V.I.L.E. henchman, once having stolen something, have tried to ransom it back or sell it to fences, etc.) 3. Profit (It's been assumed Carmen does this for the thrills, but what about the V.I.L.E. Henchmen? And how does V.I.L.E. stay in business?)
  • Monumental Theft: The former Trope Namer. She could steal things like:
    • The Moon, damage to the Earth be damned. Maybe she stole the damage, too?
    • Entire countries.
    • The Bermuda Triangle. She probably made it get lost in itself.
    • The Ozone Layer. According to the Chief it has caused a worldwide disaster (of course the detectives are on the advice of the Chief wearing SPF 9 Zillion Sunblock so that they can track down and arrest Robocrook before the environment gets any worse).
    • The frickin' Milky Way Galaxy. Theoretically, that means she stole Earth as well.
    • The World Trade Center towers, one that is a whole lot less whimsical-seeming now.
    • The Roman Forum.
    • In "The Case of the Unsolved Crime", Carmen and henchman Sam O'Nella steal the Pantheon from Rome, Italy. However, Carmen, punishing Sam for a past betrayal, ditches him immediately after the heist, leaving him with a thousand-ton stone monument of a white elephant. Sam unsuccessfully tries to sell the stone to be used in paperweights before being caught.
    • Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? worked hard to make Carmen Sandiego's seemingly outrageous crimes semi-plausible in their execution. True to herself, she always commits her crimes just to prove she can, and allows the stolen goods to be recovered once the theft's been accomplished.
      • The opening credits have her stealing a Chinese stone lion, The Sphinx, and the Statue of Liberty in rapid succession.
      • A plan to make her the most famous crook in time by stealing the Roman Colosseum from Ancient Rome, deals with stolen miniature landmarks, ACME's first Chronoskimmer, a bust of a Roman leader, an electric magnet from the future, and Hannibal's elephants.
  • Mooks: Many street-level thugs can be detected to show you are on the right trail!
  • The Most Wanted: Carmen, in her various incarnations, due to her numerous Impossible Thefts, which range from the Mona Lisa's smile to national monuments. This, combined with the fact that she used to be one of them, has made her the seemingly sole focus of the ACME Detective Agency as well as nearly every law enforcement organization on the planet.
    • Judging from the logo seen in the 1996 versions of World and USA, ACME's motto is literally, "dedicated to the pursuit of Carmen Sandiego." Also, some game manuals make reference to an "ACME Institute of Carmenology." One wonders what ACME even did back when Carmen worked for them.
  • Mythology Gag: The Facebook game has a few, mostly to previous TV shows.
    • The Chief looks very much like Lynne Thigpen from the game shows, specifically Where in the World.
    • Carmen's wanted poster references lyrics from the theme song to the World game show.
    • While Carmen has yet to make an actual appearance, her characterization and described appearance from the various papers on the bulletin board and databases share similarities with how Carmen was portrayed on Where on Earth. Even the logo for the Facebook game looks similar to the logo from Where on Earth. Word of God has not confirmed this, though.invoked
  • No Name Given: The chief of ACME Detective Agency is unnamed beyond the title of Chief.
  • Oddball in the Series: Where in North Dakota Is Carmen Sandiego?, a game proposed by a North Dakota school board, which was never sold through retail — though retail copies were sent to the education officials who worked on it.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • One episode of the Earth cartoon establishes Carmen has a deep fondness for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, her favorite book as a kid. Of course, in that episode she's after the Smithsonian's pair of Dorothy's slippers...
    • Not to mention, Where on Earth apparently states that Carmen doesn't want to hurt the ACME Detectives.
    • Carmen is mentioned to have a soft spot for D-List criminals, and offers them employment out of pity.
  • Phantom Thief: Carmen hits most of the main points, including being elusive, honorable, and well-dressed.
  • Pretty in Mink: Early box art covers had Carmen wearing a dark-colored fur coat, with Where in the USA and Where in Europe being the most prominent examples. Carmen had a red fur coat on the original cover of Where in Time as well.
  • Punny Name: It seems that getting into V.I.L.E. requires you to have some sort of pun in your name, as this tends to come up with every goon you capture. This is absolutely ubiquitous in the Brøderbund games; The Learning Company apparently didn't like them as much. For the Facebook game, it's initially subverted as most of the crooks have mundane names (or your own friend's names; see Big Bad Friend above). It's played straight once you start solving the Hard cases that Punny Name criminals start showing.
  • Race Lift: Carmen is usually unambiguously Hispanic, but at times she has been changed to a paler skin tone. Arguably she just gets turned into a Mukokuseki-type lighter-skinned Hispanic, though. Perhaps she stole her own skin tone?
  • Red Baron: Carmen's been referred to many times as the Queen of Crime, and less often as the Duchess of Thievery. But most of all, she's been called the "World's Most Notorious Thief".
  • Respawning Enemies: The elemental spirits in Secret of the Stolen Drums. Averted with Carmen's robots—any robots Cole has destroyed will remain destroyed, even if you saved, quit, and reload the game again.
  • Retcon: Lots of 'em. Most notably, Carmen's original Back Story had her being a former spy for the Intelligence Service of Monaco—don't expect that to show up in any game made after Czechoslovakia split up.
  • Revenge of the Sequel: Carmen Sandiego Returns
  • Right-Hand Cat: In Junior Detective and the 1996 versions of World and U.S.A., Carmen has a pet cat named Carmine. Sadly, we never see Carmen stroke Carmine in the usual villainous fashion (although Carmine being a ginger cat against Carmen's red would create a terrible color clash). In those games, Carmine being seen was one of the signs that the player was on the right track, with World in particular having her at each case's final destination.
  • Rogues Gallery: V.I.L.E. in the PBS shows has several recurring villains.
  • Spell My Name With An S: Treasures of Knowledge spells Carmen's middle name as "Isabela". The manual for Secret of the Stolen Drums spells it as "Isabella".
  • Supervillain Lair: Carmen occasionally has one of these.
    • The 1996 version of U.S.A. has her lair hidden in Washington D.C., all the better to steal the Declaration of Independence at the end of the final case.
    • In Word Detective and Math Detective, you teleport between various V.I.L.E. hideouts around the world (and one, from Math Detective, in outer space) to find the games needed to unlock the Plot Coupons.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: V.I.L.E. seems to be stocked with complete idiots; given a Hand Wave in one of the game manuals, which said that Carmen has a soft spot for people less capable than herself.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: While every Carmen TV show and game has its own cast of characters, many fulfill similar niches:
    • Scientists: Dr. Belljar, Sarah/Saira Bellum, Jane Reaction
    • Musicians: Sarah Nade, Mel Ancholy, Carri Daway, Esther Odious
    • Aliens: Kneemoi, Dr. Ima LeZaard, A. Leon Being
    • Nobles: Contessa, Baron Wasteland, Baron Grinnit, Countess Cleo
    • The Pig-Pen: Hugh Stink, Top Grunge
    • Hackers: Dee Cryption, Cy Berpunk, Telly Phone, The Troll
  • Time Police: The whole point of Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? and Where in America's Past as well.
  • Time Travel: Where in Time and America's Past, obviously, and there were time machines in Where on Earth.
  • Tomboyish Name: Subverted with Jules. One clue Carmen left behind addressed Jules as Julia in Treasures of Knowledge. This actually caused a Dub Name Change in the DS game.Explanation
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Tacos, something established as early as the first game. (Identifying the suspect's food preference was one of several clues you would need to identify him her in most games, and if the suspect was Carmen herself, the right choice would be "Tex/Mex".)
  • Unwinnable by Design: If you spend too much time going to the wrong places, before you figure out some of the more obscure hints (Especially in the later cases where there is almost no room for errors), you'll run out of time or battery power.
    • Can easily veer into the Cruel version of this trope. While there may be ample clues to show where the crook is going, you still have to figure out who the crook is via investigating clues and getting a warrant. You might find yourself questioning multiple witnesses, eating up valuable time, and lose the case because you took too long. See Luck-Based Mission above.
  • Video Game Remake: World and U.S.A. were both remade twice. Time was remade once.
  • Villain-Based Franchise: The protagonists change almost every time, but Carmen is always the one they're going after.
  • World of Pun: Oh, is it ever. Not least of which are all of the villain names.
  • World Tour: One of the most famous examples.