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by PopTop and GoD

Pop Top’s Tropico is a terrific game, probably my favorite game of this spring. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s deep, and it forces you to make tough decisions on both pragmatic and ethical levels that often result in unexpected consequences. This all sort of took me by surprise. Since Tropico was billed as a sim game in which you ruled over your own tropical island dictatorship, I feared it might be either a bland “Sim City goes Carribean” game or one that rewarded you for ruling with an unequivocally iron fist. It’s neither of those.  While many of the game’s features and concepts will be familiar to fans of the Sim series, PopTop has developed the “tropical dictatorship” setting with such specificity and with so many unique features that it doesn’t play quite like any other game to date. And it’s not like you can just start shooting people in the streets and throwing everyone in jail. Well, you can, but there are serious consequences for these kinds of actions and you’ll probably end up ruling a terrible little Papa Doc-esque craphole island.

Tropico’s general thesis is that it’s harder to be a dictator than you think. Really. This is partly because in Tropico you oversee all of your island’s economic and social development—so you can decide whether you’d like to create a tourist’s paradise with a highly-educated capitalist populace or an agrarian socialist worker’s utopia, and partly because as dictator you can accomplish these goals by either using a little well-placed social engineering or just busting down doors in the middle of the night. You can also decide to do this for the good of the people or for the good of your Swiss bank accounts. This gives you a lot of decisions to make, and playing Tropico successfully takes planning and forethought.

Fortunately, for all its depth Tropico’s a fairly easy game to get into. It has an excellent tutorial, and is very scalable—you can choose to play on various difficulty settings, and with different victory conditions. You can also play several pre-designed scenarios. Before each game, you’ll also be asked to create a persona for yourself—you can either select a pre-made dictator persona or create your own. This allows you to choose your background, how you came to power, two sterling qualities, and two miserable flaws. All of these choices will affect how you are perceived by your populace, and also grant certain special abilities or penalties. Again, it helps to have a general plan for your island’s development before you do this. If you want a military dictatorship, it’s not bad to be a Generalissimo who took over in a coup. On the other hand, if you want to build a tourist-driven economy you might want to be an ex-pop singer who won a popular election. If you see yourself as a captain of industry, you might want to choose the “green thumb” quality, which cuts down on pollution. If your tastes run towards the hedonistic, you might want to be a charismatic alcoholic womanizer.

You begin the game with a pretty raggedy island. You’ll have a presidential palace, a few farms, a construction office, some teamsters for transport, and a lot of sheds. The first order of business will be to get an economy up and running, and the easiest way to do that is by changing a few of the farms from corn to cash crops. Tropico features an impressive series of informational overlays that provide such information as where certain crops will thrive, so you’ll quickly be able to determine what farms to change to sugar or tobacco plantations. Once the money starts pouring in (and this will happen only after your teamsters walk to the farm, take the crop to a dock, and load it on a ship) you can begin to expand your economy by building mines, establishing tourist hotels, and throwing up power plants and factories. Placement is everything in Tropico. If you put hotels too close to your tenements, tourists will avoid them, if your housing is too far from your work sites, your laborers won’t make the trip. While industries can do a lot for your nation’s cash flow, they’re noisy and dirty and no one wants to live near them, so your people’s quality of life tends to decline in their vicinity. Running your island nation’s economy is a delicate balancing act—you have to exploit available resources, attract tourists, feed your people, watch the environment, and build an infrastructure of roads and power to support it. Without a carefully devised economic plan, you’ll soon find yourself out of money and the people’s favor. You can also receive foreign aid by pleasing either Russia or the USA, and can even enter into an alliance with them—at the price of allowing a military base on your island. Be careful, though--anger one of the superpowers, and you face a game-ending invasion.

You must also manage your island’s society, which is made up of several factions, including the military, capitalists, communists, the church, intellectuals, and environmentalists. Clearly not all of their goals and desires are the same, and one or more of them will probably be upset with your governance most of the time. Each faction has specific demands—the religious flocks will want churches and cathedrals, communists will demand wage parity, militarists will insist upon powerful well-paid soldiers. All of them will want decent housing, food, and entertainment. It’s up to you provide these things, El Presidente, and the game’s complexity means that you’ll often be lacking in one area or the other, which means you’ll be faced with critical decisions about who benefits and who doesn’t. Do you sacrifice education for tourism? Do you respond to the militarist’s demand for a new armory rather than the socialist’s call for a new radio station? Do you offer substandard housing while building up the capitalist’s (and your own) bank account on the backs of underpaid workers in high-tech sweat shops? Rest assured you’ll need to throw everyone a bone from time to time, though—otherwise you’ll face the spectre of very angry rebels attacking your outlying farms.

Since you’ll occasionally find yourself in tough situations, it’s nice to know that you can bail yourself out of some of the worst by issuing “edicts”, a sort of a deus ex machina that will preserve your hide in crisis situations--for a price. For example, if your popularity is very low and an election looms, you can always pay some money for the Mardi Gras edict, which increases your tourism and entertainment ratings and gives a nice boost to your reputation. If you find the Church very upset, you can issue an Inquisition edict, and you can attempt to quell pesky rebellions by offering the Amnesty edict.

The most successful default strategy in Tropico is typically playing towards the middle, and on default settings you can usually make everyone pretty happy while building a bustling economy. But at higher difficulty levels, resources are scarcer, and you’ll often find factions in rebellion. This is where the game becomes very challenging, and where you’ll find yourself issuing edicts for the assassination of very popular political rivals and building jails for malcontents. It is, however, very difficult to play the game like a little Allende. While you can rule through with mass imprisonments and political bribes and military force, you’ll be faced with constant revolts, flagging tourism, and a weakened economy.  Some reviewers have expressed dismay that it’s not easier to be a hardass dictator in this game, but this isn’t Quake III. Outright slaughter and despotism have consequences, and if you throw someone in the slammer or line them up against a wall, their family isn’t going to care much for you, and neither are their friends, and eventually neither is anyone else. All of this is modeled in the game, and makes the use of force a tricky and oftentimes risky option.

On the graphics side of the ledger, Tropico looks very good;; you island looks positively idyllic and think clouds roll over it, structures and detailed and attractive, and the 2D sprites of your people are nicely modeled, informative and look sharp even at the highest zoom levels. The game’s interface is easy to access and handy, and while you might have to go one or two menus in for some information, this is forgiveable in a game this deep. A real bonus is the game’s excellent soundtrack of Latino music.

The only quibbles I have with the game is that it can run a little slowly at times—especially when you get a couple hundred inhabitants and several dozen buildings up, scrolling can get a little choppy. It’s also unfortunate, given the game’s emphasis on careful placement of structures, that you can’t rotate all buildings for easier placement. Some—like docks—you can, but apartments are set at a fixed orientation, which makes for some awkward and frustrating moments.

But Tropico’s real strength is its gameplay, which is very complex and addictive. The game has so many variables that I haven’t touched on—like weather patterns, crop rotation, structure upgrades, fishing fleets, propaganda, internal politics and trade—that even after a couple dozen games I’m still being surprised by many of the game’s subtleties. If you’re a fan of strategy or sim games, Tropico’s combination of sun-drenched personality, irreverent humor, and compelling and complex gameplay make this one a must-have. 

Rick Fehrenbacher


Ups: Deep gameplay, lots of features, options, and local color. Very addictive. 

Downs: Inability  to rotate structures can make for  tedious moments, can get choppy.

System Reqs: P200, 32 MB RAM


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