Believe it or not we’ve actually reached a milestone on the blog, because we’ve finally got a Sega Master System cart published in the United States by a third-party company. That company would be Parker Brothers, the famous toy company that previously published video games for the Atari 2600 and other pre-crash systems and in 1988 decided to re-enter the video game realm, signing with Sega while most of the other companies stuck with Nintendo. However Parker would only contribute three games for the SMS, all of which were ports of old computer titles, before defecting to the NES themselves.
In any case, Parker’s first offering for the SMS is a port of Broderbund’s famous ‘edutainment’ title that debuted on computers in 1985 and thrust players around the globe in search of treasure-snatching thieves while helping them learn world geography. The game was a massive hit and spawned a long-running series of sequels as well as other media. Sega and Parker Bros. apparently decided the Master System needed an educational title while needing a famous-enough name for the SMS library and figured this would fit both bills, thus this cart marked Carmen Sandiego’s entry into the console world. (This would lead to other Carmen Sandiego ports eventually appearing on the NES and the 16-bit systems.) Those expecting a faithful port of the PC original might be startled by a few head-scratching changes made for this Sega version.
The premise is the same as the original as the Villains’ International League of Evil, lead by master thief Carmen Sandiego, are causing a global crime wave by stealing valuable artifacts from cities around the world. As the newest member of the ACME Detective Agency, you’re tasked with solving this problem by recovering the loot and bringing Carmen and her followers to justice one case at a time. At the beginning of each mission the teletype machine spells out which artifact was just stolen by the V.I.L.E. crooks and you’re given just seven days to recover the treasure by finding and capturing the criminal responsible. Once you begin your investigation you’ll quickly discover the developers probably didn’t trust gamers would go for the original version’s menu interface and felt the game needed to be more ‘video game-esque’ to fit on a console. As a result instead of getting well-designed still pics while choosing from several menu options, here you get a side-view of a street and your detective is depicted by a sprite which you move around to one of several buildings, plus you can even jump and duck. Basically it’s the same setup used by later console-style edutainment titles such as the Mario Is Missing series.
Regardless of the setup the game still follows the original PC formula for the most part. You first begin at the scene of the crime and must track the criminal down by following his trail until you corner him/her. Each city has up to three buildings you can visit to speak with the locals and get hints to where your target departed to next, such as a landmark, flag colors and so on. Moving your character around is not difficult, and you even have a run button to speed things along, though the controls can feel a little clunky at times. Then you head to the airport and pick the next city out of a selection of possible destinations to fly to, hoping your lead nets you more clues and a step closer to your quarry. The locals may also mention something about the crook’s identity which you need to pay attention to. Thing is you have a time limit to solve the case and talking to each of the locals takes an hour or two off the clock, so you can’t waste too much time looking around for clues. Naturally travelling to the next city also requires several hours depending on the distance, especially if you fly to the wrong location and have to correct your course which knocks more time off the clock. Not to mention your detective requires sleep every evening and will shut down at 8pm for nine hours of rest.
As in the original you’ll know you’re on the right trail when you’re ambushed by one of Carmen’s henchmen in certain cities, but in this version he tosses a knife at your direction that you must dodge, either by jumping over it or ducking under it. If you do get hit by the projectile you’ll be forced to sit out several hours to recover from the attack before resuming your sleuthing. Following the clues correctly will eventually lead you to where your target is hiding, which the locals will tip off by mentioning some questionable activity in the area. Thing is, prior to confronting him/her, you need to obtain the proper arrest warrant by using the phone booth at the end of the screen to call headquarters and chose which member of Carmen’s gang to obtain the warrant for, putting together the hints to the thief’s identity you obtained over the course of your investigation. Once you do corner the thief you’ll quickly discover your quarry is packing heat as he/she shoots bullets back at you. This standoff is basically you avoiding the bullets (just like the knives) and keeping the criminal engaged until the police arrive at the scene. If you don’t have the proper warrant, the crook will go free and you’ll be severely penalized on the clock. If you do have the warrant for the right suspect, the police will make the arrest and you’ll have solved the case. Then you’re congratulated by the Chief and may even get rewarded with a promotion to the next skill level before heading off to the next case, ultimately working your way up to possibly capturing Carmen herself.
For the most part the game plays reasonably well, and does capture the spirit of the original despite ditching the original menu interface for the side-scrolling format. The graphics are nicely done with detailed backgrounds and vibrant colors used throughout, while there’s not much audiowise outside of an alarm tone when you’re attacked. The gameplay may get a little repetitive at times since it never really changes, yet it’s still surprisingly addictive as gathering clues and solving a case while learning about world geography somehow keeps you engaged and the difficulty progresses at a nice rate, with the last few missions providing a good challenge. However odds are you’ll be left wondering why the developers just had to force you into the gunfights with the criminals, or making you dodge knives. These showdowns just come off as an unnecessary attempt to add more action to a game that didn’t need it and can also lead to some frustrating moments since you can’t protect yourself. This is especially true if you’re close to your deadline and have the thief cornered only to get hit with a bullet, forcing you to watch as the remaining time is drained and causing you to unfairly fail the mission. Finally there’s no game save feature, not even a password, so you have to play all the missions in one sitting.
Ultimately how this game rates in your eyes depends mostly on how you feel about the Carmen Sandiego series or edutainment games in general. By itself the cartridge is a nice little attempt to make learning fun and you might find yourself enjoying it more than you think. On the other hand longtime fans of the computer titles might enjoy the different take on the series, but others wanting a more faithful port might be better served with the later editions on the NES and 16-bit systems which decided to use the menu interface. It also probably won’t change the minds of those who disdain edutainment games in general.