The game is a point-and-click adventure with a changeable cursor, drop down menus and on-screen icons. Players must identify on-screen "hot spots" in order to find items that will help their progress. In each case, the player must investigate clues to help a historical figure solve a problem, recover a stolen treasure, and capture a thief. The Good Guides are available to help the player to complete each challenge. The player also has access to the ACME Agent handbook supplied with the game, which contains hints and suggestions for solving the puzzles. Each case involves a four-step process of identifying the theft, solving the problem, collecting the Carmen notes and arresting the thief.
When the player arrives in the new location at the start of each case, the accompanying Good Guide will provide some historical context, and mention any notable figures who will appear throughout the case. After clicking on a person, the player can proceed to interrogate them about their situation. If necessary, they may then re-ask any questions via rollover text to extract further information. Historical characters' responses guide the player toward that period's task.
Items must be collected and moved round the screen or placed in the inventory box to complete cases. Characters will either offer the player objects, or the player must seek out items that can be taken. Collectible items can be kept for later use by dragging the object into the Inventory box. Players must also look for scraps of the Carmen Notes, which describe where each thief will hide. These notes have each been torn into three pieces to make them more difficult to find. The player must click on the scraps of paper to assemble them into a whole note. Once all the pieces of the Carmen note are found, the ACME handcuffs (known as Time Cuffs) activate and the player can decode Carmen's message to deduce her henchmen's location. Using the Time Cuffs on the relevant object reveals the thief, which the Good Guide then arrests. After capturing each crook (with Dee Cryption captured onceand the others captured), the player pursues Carmen herself.
The player can access The Chronopedia, a historical guide that provides information about each time period and its important people, places, maps and events. Each Good Guide carries a section of the Chronopedia, and gives the player the relevant chapter upon arrival in each time period. All the text within the Chronopedia was reviewed and approved by Encyclopædia Britannica. The information may be used to decipher Carmen's notes.
The gameplay mechanics change once the player retrieves the Chronoskimmer at the end of Case 18, which sees Carmen relinquishing her stolen item to the player. Instead of staying within the same time period for the duration of the final case, the player now follows clues at each location to work out where to go next. This is a return to the 1989 version of Time mechanic. Though the player now has the ability to travel to any period in history whenever they like, Carmen may only travel to time periods that she has already visited, and therefore the game restricts the player to the time periods of the previous cases. Parts of the screen previously occupied by Carmen's notes and in-game collectible items are replaced with the Chronoskimmer slider and the travel button. Throughout this case, the player receives help from all five ACME Good Guides. Originally, players could visit a themed website for "more in-depth learning" about the cultures visited in the game, which included "articles from Brittanica, hints, and a feedback area". The site, along with the other Carmen Sandiego pages created by Brøderbund Software and maintained by The Learning Company, were shut down in 2005.
On the opening screen, the player can choose to sign into the ACME roster to begin a game, continue with a saved one, or create a customized game by selecting one or more cases (a feature recommended for teachers). The game's opening credits finds Carmen Sandiego breaking into ACME Timenet headquarters in San Francisco in the present day, where she unlocks and steals a device called the ACME Chronoskimmer. Carmen later explains to her henchmen that the Chronoskimmer allows them to travel through time and steal historical treasures, thereby altering the course of history. Each crook must travel to a different time and place to steal an object and Carmen gives them a note to tell them where to hide before she will pick them up.
Meanwhile, the Chief greets the player and explains what was stolen, why it is important, and what will happen if Carmen and her henchmen succeeds. The Chief explains to the player that he/she can immediately stop Carmen by going through Time Tunnels, which are passages through time and space left behind the Chronoskimmer whenever it jumps through time. After the player enters the Time Tunnel, that is the only way he/she can communicate with the Chief. Once the player have entered his/her cases, he/she cannot communicate with the Chief as she has not yet been born before 1948. However, the Chief sends the player one of the five Good Guides, characters who are knowledgeable of the culture of each case's historical period, to help the player if he/she gets stuck, as well as liaison with the historical figures. Each guide has a particular area of historical expertise, such as antiquities, exploration or inventions. The five Good Guides in the game are: Ann Tickwittee, Ivan Idea, Rock Solid, Renee Santz, and Polly Tix. Each offers assistance when the player clicks on them and asks questions presented at the bottom of the screen. The game is divided into 19 chapters, or cases, starting in Ancient Egypt and each advancing the player closer to the modern day. The player must complete all cases to win the game. At the end of each case, the player and the Good Guide return to the Time Tunnel, where the Chief tells the player how they have set history back on track and briefs the player for the next case.
The player begins the game with the rank of Time Pilot, but is promoted by the Chief as the game progresses, advancing to Time Scout, Time Trooper, Time Detective, Time Inspector, and by the end of the game, the rank of Time Sleuth, enabling a chance to capture Carmen Sandiego. Once the player is successful, the Chief lets them in on top secret information: that Carmen Sandiego was also an ACME agent, but felt the challenge of catching crooks was too easy so she became a villain herself to outsmart her former colleagues. She aimed to delete a detailed dossier about her transition, which is thematically linked to her desire to delete the memory of history's greatest figures and achievements (dubbed "Project: History Sweep"), under the pretense of simply "stealing history's greatest treasures". Though unstated in the game, it is implied that Carmen Sandiego only ordered her henchmen to steal these items as a decoy in order to ensure the ACME headquarters was completely empty while all agents were cleaning up her trail of historical mess. Once the player captures Carmen Sandiego, they have completed the game.
The only live-action role in the game was that of The Chief, played by Lynne Thigpen. All other roles were performed as voice-overs. Although most of the voice actors in the game only play one character, some performed multiple roles in different cases. For example, Charles Martinet plays both William Shakespeare and Ludwig van Beethoven. Jarion Monroe plays a mixture of both historical and fictional characters: Ivor the Blacksmith, Kublai Kahn, Huang the Merchant, Richard Burbage, and Yuri Gagarin. While the voice actors playing Carmen Sandiego and most of her crooks are not credited, Francine Scott is credited as playing "Villains".
The game distinguishes between historical and fictional characters with the rollover text that is displayed when the cursor is placed over a character. With a few exceptions (including ACME agents, V.I.L.E villains, and the peasants in Case 5) characters who have both a first and last name are genuine historical figures, while characters with only a first name or a descriptive title are fictional. However, some of the real historical figures like Queen Elizabeth I and Montezuma are referred to by only their first names.
By 1991, Brøderbund had released five successful Carmen Sandiego games: World (1985), USA (1985), Europe (1988), Time (1989), and America's Past (1991). This year marked the franchise's debut into television with the PBS game show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? hosted by Greg Lee, starring Lynne Thigpen as the Chief, and featuring the a cappella band Rockapella. This series ultimately lasted for five seasons, winning six Daytime Emmy Awards throughout its run. After cancellation World was followed by a less successful spin-off entitled Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? which ran from 1996 to 1997, winning one Daytime Emmy Award. During the run of the World game show, Brøderbund had released Space and Junior Detective (based on the animated TV series), and planned on rebooting their most popular titles for a new generation; this resulted in the release of USA (1996), World (1996), and Time (1997). While USA and World became inspired by the World game show, many elements of the Time game show became incorporated into Time, including the theme song (performed by its vocal group The Engine Crew), the names of many of its villains, and the ACME Timenet headquarters (a parody of World's ACME Crimenet). In each of these three titles, Thigpen assigned cases to the player through live-action video clips in her reprised role as Chief. Throughout Time's two seasons, these video games were often given to players as prizes for winning. Clear Ink won the contract to create a website for Carmen Sandiego, which was released in line with the shipping of Time and Word. Kenneth Goldstein, who joind Brøderbund in 1992 to "strengthen" the Carmen Sandiego series, was executive producer for the game. The game " supports the National Curriculum".
While Brøderbund had previous experience with point-and-click titles with the 1993 video game Myst, Time was the first game of the genre that was part of a Carmen Sandiego franchise. Breaking away from the 'clues to next location' style of gameplay, the developers chose a graphic adventure game, in which each case took place in one historical setting. This allows the player to experience the culture of each period, "learn[ing] about the history of the people, events and life conditions of the time", rather than simply obtaining a clue then traveling elsewhere. The game bears only cosmetic resemblance to the 1989 game of the same name, the latter uses the time-traveling Chronoskimmer, the theft of historical objects by Carmen's crooks, and a form of pun-based humor present in most games in the series.
Though the company had experimented with other subject matter in previous Carmen Sandiego games, to many critics this title, along with Word Detective (1997) and Math Detective (1998), marked the franchise's debut in subjects other than geography. Buffalo News said, "instead of world facts, they aim to teach lessons about history and word usage", adding that the transition was a "smooth one". Providence Journal-Bulletin wrote, "Brøderbund's Where In Time is Carmen Sandiego and Carmen Sandiego Word Detective continue the great tradition of the original Carmen, expanding into [history] and language". The Christian Science Monitor wrote "Now Carmen has taken her criminal activities beyond geography and into the realms of history, math, and the language arts", and argued that Time was "the most closely related to the series' prototype". The straightforward question-answer puzzle game ThinkQuick (1999) was the final game to be developed by Brøderbund; the company was acquired by The Learning Company in 1998, and on June 1, 1999 re-released Time with a minimal redesign and a name change from Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? to Carmen Sandiego's Great Chase Through Time.
The character animation was done independently of the background design, and they were layered on the same screen after each element was produced. This allowed the same character animation to be placed in multiple backgrounds. For example, Sacagawea appears in both the opening and final scenes of Case 15 in an identical physical stance. Brøderbund was very efficient with its workflow, having an assembly-like system. The company's plan was to keep the look consistent throughout. Instead of putting each artist in charge of both design layout and painting, the tasks were given to two separate work streams, done by two separate groups of artists with different skill sets. Approximately 2-3 artists painted the backgrounds for the game, which began as prototype backgrounds before being coloured in. The same system applied with the colour models for animated characters. A full-time onsite employee came up with the look and feel of the design while freelance artists were hired to fulfil the vision. Layout artists were required to complete animation on top of static images. Many of those who worked on this game also contributed to World, U.S.A., and Word. Much of the design work took place between 1996-7. The Opening, Closing, and Jailbreak sequences required special attention to ensure they were aesthetically impressive and succinctly told a visual narrative. In mid 1997, the three cut-scene sequences had to be painted over in order to give them a 3D effect which matched the backgrounds of the game levels. Artist David Sacherri described Time designers Stuart Lowder and Leila Joslyn as "wonderful people to work for", adding that the gaming industry was "young" at the time, and so this was reflected in the technology used. The tool for freelance artists was Photoshop, and they developed painting techniques as they went. They didn't have tools such as wacom tablets or handheld styluses, and instead simply painted with a mouse. To give trees a "leafy look", an improvised technique was to "ha[ve] the mouse fade after two to three pixels [for] several strokes”.
Though the game was "carefully constructed to be fun and factual", in some cases the historical accuracy was sidestepped in favor of ease of gameplay, creating fun puzzles, and increasing visual clarity. Uniquely, the siege in Case 5 is entirely fictional and is a direct result of Carmen's crook stealing the Domesday Book, resulting in a perceived weakness in William's leadership and a rebellion to overthrow him. In addition, while efforts were made to convey historically accurate scenarios, they could only do so based on the available evidence which they sometimes extrapolated from. In situations where the truth is unknown, certain viewpoints were chosen. For example, while there is no evidence that Hatshepsut wore a false beard. She is often depicted wearing one in statues and hieroglyphs and the game's designers decided to include this "intriguing, if debatable, element". Often, the designers created simplified versions of long and complex concepts in order to reduce confusion and make cases shorter. Examples include the mummy-making process in Case 1, the feudal political system presented in Case 5, the sign language of the Plains and Rocky mountain regions in Case 15, and the Vostok rocket parts involved in Gagarin's spaceflight in Case 18. Also, modern titles were used in favour of contemporary ones in the case of pharaoh for Hatshepsut, "Inca" for the Incan civilization itself, and Edison for Thomas Alva Edison. Similarly, a choice was made for every character to speak English instead of using subtitles for the sake of simplicity, even in time periods or locations where English was unknown or was not the local language.
Interviewing Matt Fishbach, Associate Designer at Brøderbund Software in January 1997, fansite The Sandiego Manor asked "Are there going to be updated versions of Where in Time or America's Past?" (in response to the then-recent reboots of Where in the World? and Where in the USA?), to which he replied "Quite likely. Look for an announcement at the upcoming "Toy Fair" event in NYC (in March, I believe)". Sure enough, "Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?" was unveiled at the Toy Fair in New York City by Brøderbund later that year. Business Wire noted at the time "The announcement of this new software title takes place on the heels of the recent releases of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego?, both top five software titles this past holiday, and the successful launch of the new Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? PBS game show for kids."
Brøderbund Software’s marketing strategy aimed at a target demographic: "young parents who have a computer at home and want their kids to learn while playing". To do this, it created edutainment titles with "entertaining graphics and sound", beta-tested them with kids to ensure they were easy to use, and had deals with retailers like Best Buy and Babbages. An MHHE document entitled Marketing’s Role within the Firm or Nonprofit Organization explained "retailers are happy to give new Brøderbund products shelf space because they know that Brøderbund’s promotion will help bring customers into the store". In the case of Great Chase Through Time, Brøderbund "not only placed ads in family-oriented computer magazines but also sent direct-mail flyers to its registered customers". Due to brand loyalty, Carmen Sandiego games were able to be sold for more money than software from other companies. Parents appreciated that it "caters to their needs and offers good customer value". The Mirror held a promotion where they would give away 10 copies of the video game through The A List. The game was included in the TLC School Alliance, which saw its titles being sold at discount at theNSBA Conference in Nashville and the California CUE Conference in Santa Clara. James Lyband Jackson, Computer Education Coordinator for both the YWCA/Day Care and the Church, included the " hands-on history" program as part of their education program.
The game was released on two CD-ROMs, though later re-releases by The Learning Company had the game put on one DVD-ROM with a dual layer, and was supplied with a 36-page instruction manual. This re-release came when The Learning Company changed the game's title to Carmen Sandiego's Great Chase Through Time after acquiring Brøderbund's properties. As part of the Carmen Sandiego Social Studies Library, a School Edition of the game "c[ame] packaged in a sturdy three-ring binder that holds the software, User's Guide, a custom-developed Teacher's Guide, and the bonus resource book, World History Simulations, by Max W. Fischer". The Carmen Sandiego site explained: "Developed specifically to help you integrate the program into your classroom curriculum, the School Edition is loaded with lesson plans, reproducible student pages, bibliographies, and many other classroom resources."
The Learning Village said the game allows children to use their initiative and encourages them to investigate and think. The player must carefully listen to the story, thereby exposing themselves to a variety of interesting historical events and periods. It found that some players focus on the sleuthing aspects of the game, while others become fascinated by the historical content. It said the investigative aspects of the game were "extremely well constructed, weaving together very cleverly the story telling, solving the challenge and uncovering the clues to find the thief", that the historical content was accurate and clearly written, and that the game "can be just as engaging for the parent to experience as for the child". MacWorld noted "the game only skims the surface of most cultures, concentrating on a few select narrow aspects"; alternatively, Advocate deemed the video game "right on target".
Anne Reeks of Parenting wrote "each mission delivers wit-sharpening riddles and bits of the era's culture, achievements, government, and technology", and noting it was "unlike earlier Carmen escapades, which dragged on". Elizabeth Hurley of USA Today commented "The beauty of this program is that it's not just a history lesson, but a lesson in thinking...Each case requires the player to solve a problem before getting clues to where the villain is hiding...The software has taken the boredom out of learning." KindsWorld Magazine noted "you don't have to know a lot of history to enjoy this game, and there's an electronic reference book for help".
Games Domain Review wrote "This is certainly an enjoyable way to learn history! The characters are funny, and the graphics are very good. This game may be a little short for the older kids [but] will be more challenging for the younger crowd." Family PC said "Our 66 testers enjoyed conversing with the 50 historical figures who crossed their path, but most of all they enjoyed the thrill of the hunt and the knowledge they picked up along the way." Kiplinger's Personal Finance noted that several of the kids they playtested with became stumped in the hieroglyphics portion of the game, with one child exclaiming "sometimes you don't get enough clues". US Kids thought students could go to the Carmen Sandiego website to "find history articles from Britannica Online for more in-depth learning" into the time periods they experienced.
Robin Ray of The Boston Herald wrote that the rebooted version of the game "corrects the faults of the earlier version and adds a lot of great new features". He said that the game "manages to bring the educational features inside the game itself", prompting children to learn in order to solve the puzzles and complete the game, and that "the educational part is never heavy-handed or off-putting [and is] just part of the fun." The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel described "Carmen Sandiego's Great Chase Through Time" as "entertaining, challenging for their target age groups .. and lively without getting a case of the cutes".
A review by Lisa Karen Savignano of allgame.com said that "[t]he graphics here are really nice, if a bit goofy, and the voices don't always match up to the mouth movements, but both of those are truly forgettable when it comes to the overall game." Savignano wrote that the game is challenging but not particularly difficult, and that "some hints [and solutions to puzzles] are included with the manual [and] at the website". Mitch Gitman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reviewed "Carmen Sandiego's Great Chase Through Time", together with "Math Detective" and "Word Detective", and said "Time" was the "smartest creative move [out] of the three new products", and that "the production value, with cinematic music and quality animation" makes Time all the more deep, and describes it "[much more] ingenious and innovative" than either Word or Math.
Debbie Maria Leon of the New Straits Times said that "there's so much to learn in this...fun, upbeat edutainment title" and that "each case is unique and challenging and offers a wealth of knowledge". She added that "the high level of interactivity makes [the game] very engaging" and advises players not to "rush through the game [as] the thrill is in exploring for clues and making sense of them". She concludes by saying "a myriad of clickable items are lurking in every scene, waiting to unleash just some more interesting and intriguing information". Karen Campbell of The Christian Science Monitor wrote "There's a bit of trial and error involved when clues are not immediately apparent. It can get tedious for adults, but children, for whom the tactic is a natural part of learning, don't seem to mind".
ICT and Literacy said that "genuine historical clues are hidden in each screen and satisfaction comes from detective work, mixed with chases and talking to historical and fictional figures. It said that interaction is essential to playing the game, and skills such as problem-solving, deduction, research, decision-making, memorization, and hand-eye coordination must be used by the player. The in-game encyclopedia called the Chronopedia can "familiarize children with techniques necessary to use non-fiction CD-ROMs". Each of the 18 cases are designed to be a "discrete historical source for an area of learning". Finding the "baddie" and preventing the "historical disaster" is the reward for the player's efforts. ICT and Literacy explains that the series "mak[es] history accessible to a wide audience" and that the game "fuses ﬁction with non-ﬁction in a sophisticated design".
Great Chase Through Time was cited by Mary E. Hocks in her journal article Feminist interventions in electronic environments as an example of a Carmen Sandiego game which "included educational information in a gender-neutral way and portrayed strong, intelligent women characters" such as the African-American Chief and the Hispanic Carmen Sandigo. David Colker of Los Angeles Times wrote "Another plus for "Where in Time" is the on-screen presence of actress Lynne Thigpen, who brings a winning presence to her role as the chief of the detectives seeking Carmen". Debbie Maria Leon of the New Straits Times wrote that "the urgency of the [confident Chief's] voice [gives] enough oomph to make [the player] go scurrying to restore history". Alternatively, Providence Journal - Bulletin wrote "There's a lot to learn along the way, but we spent a lot of time sitting through overblown speeches from the chief especially when we would rather have gotten on with it." Kristie Rohwedder of Bustle said this was her "favorite Carmen Sandiego game". The New York Times said that the game's mysteries were more plausible than those of the "conventional" Carmen Sandiego Math Detective. The Sydney Morning Herald noted that "Asian and Australian history is all but neglected".