What A 30-Year-Old DOS Game Taught Me About My Awful Memory
I can't remember shit, except for where to shit. I'm constantly looking up information, facts, and figures I learned years ago, I can't stop re-re-re-re-reading a recipe to see whether I'm adding a teaspoon of salt or a 7-Eleven Double Gulp's worth, and if not for video games with written lore, I'd forget every story the second I stopped playing it. That is, if I even remember to read the lore, which I usually don't.
So I decided that I needed to get away from Wikipedia, Google, Siri, and anything else that gives me answers without expecting me to internalize them. I had two options for doing so: putting on pants and living in the Ozarks for a month, or playing Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego -- a 30-year-old DOS game about the seedy underbelly of world geography that I never beat as a tot -- without any Internet assistance, instead relying entirely on whatever's still in my memory banks after years of ignoring the world in favor of eBaum's World.
My First Assignment (And Damn Near My Last)
My first step was to block Wikipedia, plus any other site that might distract me from my task.
Like CNN, the dirtiest site of all.
Next, I identified myself to the ACME detective agency -- since this is a serious venture of the utmost international importance, I chose a moniker with appropriate gravitas.
A doctor! Mama and Papa Pubic are so proud.
Dr. Pubic's first assignment sent him to Buenos Aires to investigate the dirty hack who pilfered something called the "bola." Right away, I began panic-drooling over my keyboard. I know very little about Argentina aside from the pope, and I know squat about a bola. Is it anything like Ebola? Or maybe Ebola is just the Internet version of bola. I'm getting sidetracked already. Focus.
Then there were my possible next destinations ...
I know fuck-all about them too. Rio's got a giant Jesus, Moscow's got vodka, Colombo is a way better detective than I am, and Istanbul was Constantinople until it got the works. If the actual clues were anything tougher than that, I was screwed before I even bent over.
But that's nobody's business but the Turkish bath staff.
Thank the DOS gods, a cream puff clue! I know what an Amazon is, and even where it is. Even better, I learned my suspect has a tattoo. Inputting this data brought me two possible suspects: Len Bulk or Ihor Ihorovich. Yep, this is definitely a Cold War-era game. "Ihor Ihor" not being recycled for a Snow White porn parody is a national travesty, by the way. I'd totally watch- no, you're doing it again. Focus.
In Rio de Janeiro, I was greeted with the following possible destinations:
What the fuck is a Kigali? This was the point where I really started experiencing Wikipedia withdrawal. The witnesses' clues were equally unhelpful. First, "He converted his money to forints." That sounds like Final Fantasy money, not Earth money. Then, something about Magyar, which they claimed is art but sounds more like a line of washing machines. Finally, a thing about meeting the "party secretary." So a country with political parties? That narrowed it to down to, oh, all of them. At least the two physical clues (he drives a convertible and has red hair) earned me a warrant for Len Bulk's arrest. That asshole ginger! He deserves such a shanking for shaming my people.
OK, so I had to pick a place. Eeny meeny miny Kigali. "Eh, they probably know how to party," I reasoned.
NOPE. Based on the one street urchin who spoke for an entire country, Bulk wasn't there. So I had to return to Buenos Aires and try again, or just give up and beg Siri to take me back. I chose to trek on and went with Budapest -- perhaps they meant the Communist Party?
Judging by the lone burglar crossing my path (in this world, all crooks and thieves convene in the same place, at the same time, all the time), they did indeed! And, even better, my next hint was easy like Sunday morning: His car had a red, white, and blue flag on it. So New York City I hit, where I learned that Bulk's flag was now red, white, and green. I wasn't aware you could have an open relationship with patriotism. But that sounded like Mexico City, which was an option, so off I flew.
Caught him red-assed! Seconds later, I chucked him into a prison cell with an amazing view, which should more than make up for the lack of trial.
I got trench
coats around my shoulders
I got fe
fedoras on my head
I had conquered the Carmen equivalent of Glass Joe, despite knowing nothing about other countries, even ones I've visited before, like Brazil. But I know what my own flag looks like, so that's good, at least.
All Hail The King Of Random Guesswork
After a mere one assignment, I earned a promotion to Sleuth. Suck it 1234, you gossiping nanodick!
And don't get me started on that brown-nosing twerp 123123.
I still had many cases to go before catching Carmen and wiping out crime forever. And, just as the clues didn't get any easier, I didn't suddenly start knowing what I'm doing. At one point, I went to Moroni to track down the thief who stole plans to the sultan's harem. I barely know what a Moroni is, and how do you steal plans to a harem? Isn't that a bunch of concubines? Unless he stole them. I'll bet he did, the bastard. I wonder where the idea of concubines originated? Maybe I should flop over to Wiki- NO! FOCUS!
It's no "Stuffed the Statue of Liberty in his pocket," but it's a comically impossible start.
And the clues didn't help me in the least. Something about Malayan art, and two mentions that he changed his money to dollars. And, like, every destination I knew not a thing about. Bamako? Colombo? I've probably researched them in the past, but fuck if I could remember them now. I was forced to rely on a strategy more useful than all the knowledge in the world: straight-up guessing out my ass. First up: Bamako, because it's fun to say.
WRONG. Luckily, my infinite airplane budget brought me right back to Moroni, where hopefully my Colombo guess would pay off. If nothing else, I'd at least learn what a Colombo is.
Land of the yogurt people, probably.
WRONG AGAIN. Colombo has trees, though, so I learned that at least. But since I saw no harems in those trees (I wonder if PornHub has a "harem in trees" section), back to Moroni I went, where everyone was all, "You deserve our country's name more than we do," and went with Singapore, since that was the only option left. At least I remembered where I'd already been?
That blind detective work paid off, as I soon got my man: a flashy crook named Fast Eddie B who looked exactly like Len Bulk, and every other criminal in the game too. Even the girls! Presumably, Carmen creates criminals in the same lab where Disney creates their pop stars, only she adds trenchcoats.
This one already dances better than Ariana Grande.
This blindness quickly became my MO throughout the game: I either threw shit at the screen and flew to whatever country whose name I could read after, or latched onto easy hints like "He wanted to see the Loch Ness monster." Since "Imaginationland, because Nessie's fake, you gullible fuck" wasn't an option, and England/Scotland was, I could safely fly there and keep my mission alive.
And why did I ace the Loch Ness clue but stumbled on a later clue about the Tutsi people? Because I learned about Nessie offline years ago, and that cerebrum-sucking WiFi monster that I'm plugged into today hasn't invaded my long-term memory yet. But if I had ever Wiki'd the Tutsi people, I've long since forgotten about it. If you told me that was Batman's favorite dance, I'd believe you.
Whoops, The King Is Dead
As it turns out, just because this is a children's game, that doesn't mean adults are going to be any good at it. Especially if that adult is me. Right around case #6, my random guesswork strategy began to turn on me, simply because the clues became several times harder to attach to any one country. Like the time that I was told to find a country with king cobras. Fuck, I don't know! Aren't cobras kind of a worldwide pest? Since I couldn't exactly research where they're most prevalent, and I apparently never felt threatened enough by them to find out, I was forced to guess. This led me to more "Sorry, wrong country" screens than any mortal should ever bear:
"And if they're not in my part of the country, clearly they're in no part of it!"
Also, this is when I started regularly running afoul of the dreaded time limit. See, the Carmen universe is a sad, chaotic dystopia, where officers have under a week to arrest whomever they think did the deed. If they don't, the case is dropped and the crook ... wins. They get away, get to keep their loot, and nobody bothers them ever again. I let many a baddie slip away, like the one who got to keep Port Moresby's boar's tusk necklace because I didn't know what country harvests grapes and houses the Alfold Plain. I still don't, by the way, even after randomly guessing my way to the correct answer. A quick glance at my "You failed this one" notes reminds me it's not New Delhi, at the very least.
"I'd offer you some wine to make up for your troubles, but alas."
Probably my saddest case was the time someone stole Tokyo's royal carp. The idea of flying around the entire planet looking for and failing to find a fish is truly a lesson in mortality and human imperfection. Later, I was told to go somewhere with hot springs (basically anywhere) and a lava desert (which sounds like a Sonic The Hedgehog level). Once again, I was forced to guess until I ran out of wrong places. My only success was a hint about pandas, with one of the destinations being Peking. Good job, brain, for remembering pandas come from China. Sadly, this knowledge wasn't enough to keep the crook (Len Bulk again, because the legal system has failed us all) from getting away with a delicious royal fish dinner.
I keep telling myself he caught a bad case of salmonella, so that's sort of justice served.
Luckily, I didn't get demoted -- amazingly, demotions don't exist in this world. I failed over and over again, and ACME only acted when I succeeded. Probably because literally no other detectives were doing anything. It's easy to be an irreplaceable cog when you're also the only cog.
Maybe if slayerfan and Slayer would quit boning in the break room, they could help carry the load a little.
So if I can't Game Over, the only thing keeping me from victory is my impatient, frustrated, forgetful self. Luckily, the game stepped in and took good care of me ...
Anticlimactic Repetition Brings Me The Head Of Carmen
The final leg of this game was, shockingly, also the easiest. Sometimes: My sad attempts to find a country that produces citronella and houses sea snakes brought me nothing but lost time and mockery from a lowly sailor's parrot.
Yes, but it takes only one person to grill up an asshole parrot and serve him with tartar sauce.
But mostly, by this point, I was whizzing through these cases like you'd think a 33-year-old playing a children's game should. But this wasn't a case of my brain pulling a Hollywood amnesiac and suddenly recalling everything I'd ever Googled. Instead, the game became its very own, intensely confined Wikipedia: a few dozen nuggets of information, repeated ad nauseam, until there was no actual way I could forget the answers. Until the next morning, anyway.
But for the one day I investigated case after endless case without so much as a masturbation break, I was unstoppable. Oldest state in Europe? The game asked me that an hour ago: San Marino! Shang Dynasty? It threw that at me two whole cases ago: Peking! Turned her money into drachmas? Got that hint three times already: Athens! Sugar beets? One case ago: Moscow! Gauchas? I got this wrong twice, no way would I mess up a third time: Buenos Aires! Bow to me, for I can ace anything once you repeatedly tell me the answers beforehand.
I know now that Kathmandu isn't just a place Bob Seger invented so he could rhyme "to" with something.
This all brought me, at long last, to the final case: catch Carmen Sandiego and lock her up for good (which, in this universe, means "two weeks"). And it was -- no hyperbole -- easier than the first stage. If I barely broke a sweat against Glass Joe, this was like knocking out Mike Tyson with the sheer power of wanting to. I visited six locations and got each one right the first time. Often, I didn't need more than one hint -- either because I had already seen the hint a half-dozen times or they were brutally, insultingly easy ("She visited the stock exchange in a country with a red, white, and blue flag").
Finally, I ended up in Rio de Janeiro, where I had launched my first case, thanks to the exact same "Amazon" hint I got at the beginning of the game. That's the most pathetic full circle ever, but it brought me right to Carmen, who ... looked exactly like every other criminal I've caught. Speaking of stuff I forgot -- I honestly thought she rocked the red coat and hat from the start. Nope -- she was actually crafted in the same lab as her subordinates. One simply rose up and became alpha.
Thank God, because good luck getting Rockapella to sing the praises of Len Bulk.
With that, I had finally accomplished my decades-long goal of catching Carmen Sandiego. It was pretty anticlimactic, and the ending was your typical '80s "Yay, you won! Great job! Play again?" lazy garbage, but I still fucking did it. And they at least added this fun aside when I tried to keep going:
"Hey kids, the mob's coming for you! Sleep never again, and de-wire your mom's piano."
My Expert Scientific Analysis
Hunting Carmen all by my lonesome was a stupid idea, only successful because the game literally wouldn't let me lose. Googling should have been my friend all along -- shit, even real detectives use it, since the point is to get the job done using every resource possible. Lesson learned: From now on, I will embrace my lack of memory, task the computer with reminding me of goofy, trivial crap, and focus all my natural brain power on what actually matters in life.
Like that soup I've had on high for ... 15 hours?! Shit, gotta go.
Carmen Sandiego might be a tough game online, but the TV show was hilariously impossible. See small children compete in physics-defying physical challenges in The 5 Most Ridiculously Unfair Kids' Game Shows, and learn why an octopus could outwit Carmen Sandiego in no time when you read 6 Animals With Better Memories Than You.
Subscribe to our YouTube channel to see that, yes, the '90s had no idea how to Internet in 5 Tech Training Videos That Prove The '90s Were Insane, and watch other videos you won't see on the site!
Also follow us on Facebook, because the Internet is a dangerous place, and we're here to guide your trembling hands through it (ladies ... but also gentlemen).
Want to see Cracked editors talking post-apocalyptic movie worlds with scientists and special guests during a LIVE PODCAST at UCB on Dec. 9 at 7 p.m.? Then do it! Tickets are on sale now.