From the Console to the TV Station: Part 6

Today’s From the Console to the TV Station is a very special one, or it is to me, anyway. There is only one show up for discussion, but it is my favorite example of a game-to-TV adaptation in theory and in practice. It’s a show that many people watched as children, and one that people often forget was a game first.

Hit the jump; what’s there may be a pleasant surprise.

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?/1991-1996/WGBH

Most kids who grew up playing PC games got a good mix of genres in, but when it came to gaming on the computer, all I had access to were educational games. I suppose my mother figured that if playing games was how I was going to spend all my time, she might as well trick me into learning something through it. The PC has always had more of them than anywhere else. But I didn’t mind; I found a lot of my old educational games just as fun as the non-educational ones I played on my consoles. I had many, but one of my favorites was Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?.

I wonder who the guy to think, “This would make a GREAT game show!” was. Because he or she was a genius.
One of Brøderbund Software’s most famous games, it was created in 1985 after studies showed that a great deal of people had a horrendous knowledge of geography. The game did a great job of making learning the material fun, and as such, it sold a lot of copies and has been re-released several times. But not everyone had a computer in those days. Heck, it was 15 years later when I got my first PC and a copy of the game. So to spread the edutainment further, Brøderbund decided to turn their game into a real-life game show for public television.

In my opinion, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? marks the only time in the history of videogame-themed programming where the TV adaption surpassed the original product. Not to say that WitWiCS was a bad game, but it didn’t give away trips to anywhere in America, have funny sketches, or contain interim music performed by Rockapella. The show was so good that it won a Peabody in 1993, not to mention it would become the longest-running game show series on PBS and the second-longest-running children’s game show ever. Quite a different story than most videogame-to-TV adaptations, wouldn’t you say?

Every other kids’ game show just gave the contestants t-shirts to wear. These guys went all out.
The show took three children and put them through three rounds of games that tested their geography knowledge. Like the videogame, one of Carmen’s lackeys had to be caught first before the best contestant could go on to find Carmen herself. The first round comprised sketches that, if the contestants knew enough about geography, would reveal the location of the crook. The second round was a memory game, played with images of famous landmarks from whatever location the crook was found at, and the kids had to find the item they stole, the warrant for arrest, and the crook behind the pictures, in that order.

The third round took place in a section of the studio that had a huge map of the world on the floor. The host would read locations aloud, and the contestant would have to mark each one with a large flashing marker. And then, regardless of whether or not the contestant caught Carmen, The Chief (Lynne Thigpen, aka the omnipotent radio DJ from The Warriors, among other things) congratulated them with a rhyme, and then everybody danced.

Our Lord and Goddess, The Chief, layin’ down the law.
The best part of the show (for those watching at home; I’d imagine being there was a different story) were the aforementioned sketches. They starred host and ACME Special Agent Greg Lee, The Chief, and the members of Rockapella. Brøderbund was very much against putting “adult” material in their show, but the show had a really great sense of humor regardless of it being squeaky clean. I always had a soft spot for The Chief, whose sassiness never failed to make me laugh. She and Greg had a really good chemistry that made the show so much more than just an educational Double Dare. I would guess that she was really popular among other children too, as movie sequences of her were put into the deluxe version of the Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? game some years later.

Great shows always sprout a few spin-offs, and Carmen’s had quite a few since her first. Another game show with a history theme, Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?, was produced from 1996 to 1998. Like Where in the World? before it, it was based on a game — a 1989 sequel to the original that used the successful Carmen Sandiego formula to teach history. The Chief made a glorious return to her post as co-host, but sadly, both Greg Lee and Rockapella were nowhere to be found. While time-traveling Carmen Sandiego had a lot more to teach children, she was not quite as popular as she was during her geography teaching career.

Another spin off was a cartoon called Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?, which aired Saturday mornings on FOX. Brøderbund was very particular about how this show was produced; they did not want for it to contain violence like so many other FOX programs did at the time (X-Men, Spider-Man, Power Rangers). The focus of the show was to remain educational in nature and accessible for all ages. Where on Earth followed the adventures of two junior detectives as they tried to capture Carmen. This all took place in a videogame, with a live-action child actually being behind the controls. This cartoon was another quality videogame adaptation, and it earned the franchise an Emmy.

Additional material:
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?: Pilot episode
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?: More episodes
Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?
Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?

 

There is so much I could say about these game-themed shows in particular. They educated and entertained me throughout my childhood, and did it well. They also captured the spirit of their source material wonderfully; making a game into a game show was just a brilliant way to go, and though Brøderbund themselves are long gone (they have since been swallowed up by bigger companies), I applaud them for having just the right amount of control over their property so that it wouldn’t be twisted into something the game was not.

But I’ve rambled on enough about this show. I hope that you’ve enjoyed this iteration of FtCttTS as much as I’ve enjoyed writing and reminiscing about this TV show. Nothing else to say but… do it, Rockapella!

As always, a thousand thanks to all those who have recorded and uploaded these programs to the Internet to preserve and share them.

Ashley Davis