The goal of the game is to track down Carmen Sandiego’s villains around the world, arrest them and later capture Carmen herself. The player begins the game by first going to the country where the crime took place and then obtaining hints from various sources on where the thief went next, leading to a chase around the world to find the thief before time runs out.
Each case begins with the user being alerted that a spectacular theft has been committed. Starting by first traveling to the scene of the crime, the player is given several opportunities to collect clues about the suspect’s next location, which come in the form of pun-filled word play about the target place.
There are thirty countries that can be visited in the game and each is identified by the name of a prominent city, though this city is not always consistent with the image of the country shown in the game. If the player travels to an incorrect location, they receive nonsensical clues and will have to backtrack to the previous location to try again.
If the player travels to the correct location, a simple animation of an obvious, but otherwise harmless V.I.L.E. henchman lurking across the screen is played. The gameplay continues to repeat in this manner as the player travels from location to location several times before catching up to the criminal. The user has only a limited amount of in-game time to travel, collect clues, and apprehend the criminal; every action taken uses up a portion of this time, and the criminal escapes if it runs out.