The original Tropico came to us during one of the peaks of the city-building genre, right in between Simcity 3000 and 4. You play the dictator of a Caribbean banana republic in the height of the Cold War, building industries and services, issuing edicts, and managing your people as you see fit. It’s a more personal game, with every one of your citizens simulated with their own schedules and desires and opinions. Tropico was undeniably ahead of its time and its reception suffered a bit for that. With the benefit of a decade plus of refinement on the formula, however, its flaws are sadly clearer than ever.
Every scenario in Tropico starts you off on an island with the most basic provisions of society, such as farms, shacks, a port, and a palace for your unseen dictator. From there you build farms to feed your people, industries to export goods, housing to get your people out of shacks, and all manner of services from clinics to churches to schools. Each of your citizens has nearly a dozen factors that influence their happiness, and success means keeping these as high as possible. Your control over policy is incredibly granular, allowing you to set wages and management styles at businesses, influence immigration rates, add upgrades to factories. This is to say nothing of the dozens of edicts you can issue, and random events that can have huge effects on your island.
It’s an incredibly promising formula that sadly was not fully realized in its first iteration. The chief offender is the citizen simulation, which proved to be more limiting than anything. Your people have to get to work, get something to eat, find some way to unwind, and get home, with each of those steps having a real-time effect on your economy. That means your island can easily go bankrupt if your dockworkers take too long loading ships, or your teamsters get distracted from carting cigars to market. There are bugs in the staffing system as well… I had my clinics and hospitals completely unmanned for decades despite having dozens of qualified workers at lower-paying jobs.
The rest of the systems are similarly half-baked. Your edicts can provide food for the people, prohibit alcohol, change relations with the US or USSR, and disappear some of your problematic citizens. But many of them have very marginal or even detrimental net effects. Relations with the superpowers are difficult to manage in any meaningful way with your limited diplomacy tools. The whole Swiss bank system is also more trouble than it’s worth, because the main way to funnel money into your account is to make all your buildings 20% more expensive, which just makes playing the game harder. A large number of buildings and edicts happen to be locked behind providing electricity to your island as well, which is ludicrously expensive and rarely necessary to complete scenarios in the first place.
The whole thing is built on the old, voxelly Railroad Tycoon II engine which gives it a quaint, photo-scanned look but makes it incredibly hard to see elevations as they lie. This will cause you plenty of headaches when trying to build buildings anywhere near each other as you builders have to flatten terrain completely to build. The sound design is solid and contributes to the peppy, kitschy feel of the game, but does clash with the dry look of it. There’s no campaign, just sandbox and scenarios that give you basic goals to shoot for over 50 years.
The series has come a long way since the original, which only makes it harder to accept this entry’s flaws. Everything there is to appreciate about Tropico has been done better from 3 and on, with nothing left to tickle your nostalgia. I was looking forward to revisiting this title after bouncing off it in my youth, but it proved just as frustrating now as it did then.