Season of Mystery: The Cherry Blossom Murders (2009 - PC)
Square Enix's attempt at a casual hidden object game wasn't as thrilling as I'd hoped. It's not that it's terrible, it's just that it's really oldschool for this genre and doesn't have anything to set it apart. It's almost 100% finding hidden objects. There is an inventory for solving puzzles, but it's limited and doesn't come up very often. No combining objects. No scenes-within-scenes. Not many puzzles except a few easy ones, like reassembling a torn-up note. No little helper characters or special abilities and no secondary quests. And very limited animation.
Some of the scenes are pretty, but the objects are tiny and some screens are dark, which was rough on my eyes. The plot involves a murder mystery that takes place in Japan, which has the novelty of the setting, but it's standard and forgettable. Considering this game came out the same year as the first Midnight Mysteries, you could see that this genre was heading towards better things, but it wasn't quite there yet.
The Secret Garden (1994 - DVD)
This made-for-TV movie is actually a bonus on the Carmen Sandiego DVD (see below), but I'm reviewing it separately because it's unrelated and it might be worthwile to know what I thought of it in case you come across it by some means or wondered if the Carmen Sandiego set would be worth owning for it.
It's terrible. Where to start...
Obnoxious songs that exist only because people think that all animated movies have to be musicals. Songwriting and singing talent and relevance to the plot be damned.
Liberty taken with the source material that gets worse the longer it goes on. In the original story, Dickon had a way with animals. In this movie, the animals literally talk. Even worse is this ridiculously overwrought subplot about how one of the mansion's employees (Mrs. Medlock - a minor character in the original story) and the doctor are attempting to overthrow Colin and Mary's uncle and become the masters of the mansion. This superfluous B plot eventually overtakes the A plot and gets in the way of the story's themes.
The animation has that obvious "made-in-Korea 90s cartoon" look. I've seen other shows that looked just like this. It doesn't have a style of its own. Archibald Craven is supposed to be a hunchback with a spine deformity. This detail from the book is even mentioned in the movie, but his character is not drawn with a hunched or unusual back in any way whatsoever.
I guess if I had to say anything positive it's that the details that were faithful to the book were enough to make me think more about it than I had in years. I just hope some of the other film adaptations of this story are better than this one.
Where On Earth is Carmen Sandiego: The Complete Series (1994 - DVD)
I have a lot of early internet conversations ingrained in my memory. I remember someone, circa early 2000's, mentioning that they thought this show kinda sucked and another person replying who seemed a little upset by that comment. I remember that reply being along the lines of, "The games are really popular, and because they're popular enough to have a show, the show had to be good", as though they hadn't actually seen it but was taking the popularity of the games over the word of someone who had seen the cartoon.
It's not very good. Much of its content is firing off facts at mind-melting speeds while sometimes mixing in faux-facts with the real ones, like making connections between ancient structures (pyramids, Stonehenge) and aliens. The plots are formulaic - something for which DiC had a penchant.
Carmen Sandiego comes up with these grand schemes that are so bizarre, you want to see her succeed so you can see the results. But she always gets stopped right before her plans reach fruition. Example: She steals three pieces of three paintings to stitch together into one painting. She has it all finished, but it's covered with a tarp. The painting is recovered and the tarp is never removed, so you don't get to see what she did. In another episode, she pilfers artifacts and a satellite dish to contact aliens. I guess the show had to stop just short of teaching kids that aliens are real. Same with the episode where she wanted to revive a dinosaur, Jurassic Park-style. They must not have wanted kids thinking it's actually possible to do that.
DiC recycled character designs big time for this show. Chief is just Egon Spengler from The Real Ghostbusters imbued with Max Headroom's personality, and the villain Lee Jordan is a slightly-modified Peter Venkman. The rest of the characters look like extras from Captain Planet. Carmen Sandiego herself looks uncomfortably like Michael Jackson. Along with all the stock footage, still pictures, low-grade 90's CGI, and reused footage of a (live-action) kid typing at a computer, I got the impression it was made on-the-cheap, probably to satiate government mandates for children's programming to be educational.
Strangely enough, it doesn't feel like the creators didn't care about it. The bizarre comedy sketches that occur during the end credits of the later seasons indicate they were having some fun with the concept. But it just doesn't come together. Anyone who thought History in school was boring and forgot just how bored they were by it would be reminded all over again by this show. It seemed like there was some attempt in the first episode to give the main characters - a younger brother (Zack) and older sister (Ivy) - some personality and a friendly rivalry. After a few episodes, the only real difference between them is that Zack knows more languages.
The plots cannot, in any way, be taken seriously. In one episode, Carmen's henchmen Sarah Bellum goes rogue and commits her own series of robberies while disguised as Carmen. Eventually, there's the inevitable, "Which one is the real Carmen Sandiego?" scene, only it's ridiculous because Sarah Bellum, even in disguise, wears goggles. All they have to do is look to see which one is wearing goggles, but instead Ivy throws a shoe at Carmen and has this complicated explanation that this means she's the real one because she caught the shoe with her right hand - she had noticed earlier that Sarah Bellum is left-handed because she uses a left-handed keyboard. Right.
The Lee Jordan character does not work at all. He has the same voice as Captain Planet, so you have a character who looks exactly like Peter Venkman, with Captain Planet's nasally voice, trying to sound and act evil. It's wrong on every conceivable level. By the final episode, his gun-wielding hechmen are taken down by kids using judo kicks and bolas. Sadly, we know this is not how reality works.
But how do you even make a villain more evil than Carmen Sandiego? By having Carmen follow some vague sort of honor code for her robberies and having Lee...not follow them. He makes a speech about how he and Carmen are the same. Well, he's right. Right? I mean, they're both thieves, and Lee's big heist is to steal the entire US mint. Carmen says she would never do that. Really? That sounds exactly like a Carmen Sandiego crime. It makes no sense whatsoever, and it seems odd coming from an educational show. Like they're teaching kids that crime is okay if you follow a code, or something.
One major problem is that some concepts really do work best as video games, in which the environment isn't so literal. In the games, Carmen and her henchmen can steal things like a country's entire tobacco crop or all of Lake Titicaca, and you might chuckle at it, but you don't think too much about how impossible that actually is. That's the joke. This humor is lacking from the cartoon because it has no choice but to show what Carmen is stealing.
I'd like to believe history really isn't as boring as I've often thought, but this cartoon drained the life force out of me. I can't even recommend it as a good way to educate children. Surely, there has got to be better alternatives to this.