Editor’s Note: This article was originally published over five years ago, but as today is the 20th anniversary of the Tropico franchise, the author thought it would be a good time to bring it out, dust it off and improve it to celebrate the life of El Presidente. So enjoy this updated and improved version of the life and times of the world’s only likeable dictator.
Viva El Presidente: The Plight of the First Likeable Dictator
The Sim/Management genre has always tended to be a little stale and lacking in personality. Charts, graphs, numbers and plans don’t lend themselves to humour and charisma. Keeping your city/railroad/civilisation running is a serious business. Apart from the occasional joke and cute advisor these games played it down the line leaving no room for mirth as you struggled to keep control. So you would think the running of a Caribbean Island during the cold war conflict would be a humourless task. After all, what is funny about a region under constant threat from both the US and the USSR, a region fighting 3rd world conditions, a location beset by rebel uprisings and coups d’état’s? Enter El Presidente, Penultimo and the world of Tropico to prove that assumption wrong.
Tropico is at its core a management game. Just as players would manage a city in Simcity, gamers manage a fledgeling island nation in Tropico. Playing in the role of El Presidente, players take charge of their small plot of land and are required to manage the economy, international diplomacy, citizen’s welfare and the respect of the people. Each task had multiple possibilities, for example, the economy could be boosted by exporting raw materials such as iron and wood, selling food from farms, setting up an industrial presence of factories or even encouraging tourism. The determining factor for which route you took was the lay of the land. Long open beaches encouraged tourism, high levels of ore encouraged mining, masses of forests meant lumber was an exploitable resource.
This of course was just good strategy gameplay, what set Tropico apart from the crowd was its presentation. Instead of dreary characters and sombre supporters, players got Penultimo, El Presidente’s corrupt assistant. Penultimo, while loyal to El Presidente admitted to stealing money for his own purposes, suggested shooting environmentalists to stop a protest or indicated arresting people that disliked El Presidente was a perfectly legitimate thing to do and that was all in the first mission. Penultimo was not the only corrupt personality. Each faction on Tropico had its own leader that fights for what their group believes in but is happy to turn the other cheek if they are slipped a bribe. Every character in Tropico is an over-exaggerated personality. The General, leader of the Militarists is happy to “shoot ’em all and let God sort ’em out”, The Environmentalists wish nothing more than to hug everyone including the trees and one of the more powerful factions, the Religious, oppose things like birth control but are more than happy to preach from the local pub or rum distillery.
It is this embellished view on common real-life political factions that brings much of Tropico’s merriment to life. In fact, the whole tongue-in-cheek view of Banana Republics became the basis for the whole series. Real-life dictators appeared as playable characters taking the role of El Presidente and all had their own strengths and weaknesses. Che Guevara appealed to the Nationalists but was hated by the Militarists, Eva Peron received a bonus which allowed her to build cheap theatres, Fidel Castro received extra money from the USSR and Augusto Pinochet was the army’s best friend. Of course, if the player didn’t like this motley crew they could create their own dictator. Players could change their looks, strengths, weaknesses and how they came to power, all of which had an effect on the game world as a whole.
Tropico on its release was well received by the gaming public. It sold fairly well for a niche title and was praised for its excellent strategic depth and warped, yet often hilarious, view of the cold war period. People were happy to play politics, manage cash crops and deal with insurgents so naturally, a sequel was shortly announced. Fans were anticipating some more cold war shenanigans; unfortunately what they got was 17th-century pirates instead.
Tropico 2: Pirate Cove
Tropico 2 was developed by a new crew in Frog City Software and instead of building on the successes of the original, they started afresh with a new setting and a new scope. Instead of playing as El Presidente gamers were thrust into the role of the Pirate King, leader of a pirate island somewhat similar to modern media’s depiction of pirate port-o-call Tortuga. The lifeblood of this island was slave labour. Slaves were found on shipwrecks, captured on raids and bought from slave markets. Slaves could be trained in tasks that were “below” the rampaging pirates such as lumberjacks, farmers and blacksmiths. To keep the slaves on the island, the Pirate King had to ensure they were too scared to escape or revolt. Escapees could return to their country of origin and inform monarchs of your location, causing warships to attack the island. Slaves could also riot in an attempt to overthrow you as leader.
Despite these new features Tropico 2 was poorly received by many. Gone was the open-ended nature of Tropico 1’s economy and in its place was a broken economy that could be almost ignored by simply stealing more. Gone was the satirical view of politicians and in its place was a poor attempt at “pirate” humour that failed to resonate with players. Gone was the need to adapt to the environment instead the player could simply build the same buildings every game. Finally gone was the 8 different factions all vying for their demands to be met, that number was reduced to 2 with one faction just happy to be destroying things. Not only did Tropico 2 cull of all these features but it failed to improve on the graphics or sound from the original despite being released almost 3 years after the first game. Such a disaster was Pirate Cove that many thought the legacy of El Presidente and Penultimo had been destroyed forever.
It is, however, hard to keep a good dictator down and 7 years later along with a new development studio (German outfit Haemimont Games) El Presidente and Penultimo made a welcome return to gamers hearts with Tropico 3. The third entry in the series was just what fans wanted, a return to the cold war setting and the biting satire. Returning to its roots was not the only reason for players to journey to the tropics. A spanking new 3d graphics engine brought the banana republic into the modern era. This engine not only allowed players to rotate, zoom and adjust their view on Tropico but it even gave the ability to take control of El Presidente, guiding him on trips to visit his loving (or not so loving as the case may be) citizens to boost morale or quell an uprising.
Other new features included random world events, disasters, public and private transport systems, Election speeches to help win over your public, various new edicts including same-sex marriage and nuclear testing and many more. A new faction was added called Nationalists, a quasi-terrorist organisation that supports a Tropico free from the influence of foreigners and was lead by the enigmatic skinhead “El Diablo”. The biggest change in Tropico 3 was the introduction of a campaign mode. This mode consisted of 15 different missions loosely connected by an overarching story. While the story was hardly Shakespeare it was enjoyable enough to set up some great missions that focused on specific elements of the Tropico universe. It also allowed the game’s humour to shine. The increased focus on a story allowed Penultimo to rise to the occasion with increasingly hilarious comments. Along with Penultimo, the funnies were ladled to the player thick and fast by Tropico’s two radio stations. One run by the government which spouted El Presidente loving propaganda and one run by the island’s rebel population condemning every move made by the dictator. The commentary provided by these sources is some of the funniest ever heard in a video game, let alone a management sim.
Tropico 3 brought the series back to what it did best and while it was hampered by some problems like bugs and glitches it sold well enough to be ported to the Xbox 360. The 360 version was customised to utilise a controller instead of the traditional mouse. This ported version was praised for bringing such a complicated game to home consoles, allowing “couch sitters” everywhere to partake in some Dictator hijinks without sacrificing the quality of the game. Tropico 3 was a resounding success and like all good games, another instalment was promptly announced.
Not making the same mistake twice, Haemimont games stuck with the loved setting and worked on an evolution of the Tropic 3 formula. As a result, Tropico 4 was born, released a mere 2 years after the previous game in 2011. Tropico 4 took what 3 did well and expanded on it in almost every way. More buildings, better graphics, sexier sounds and a funnier Penultimo made Tropico 4 feel like a super polished production. The biggest improvement to the Tropic series in this instalment was the story mode. Taking the previous game’s rough campaign mode and moulding it into an entertaining story was without doubt Tropico 4’s crowning achievement.
The story consists of 3 acts. The first act “Rise to Power” tells the tale of a new Presidente arriving in the Caribbean with a goal to create a paradise for his people. To do this he makes alliances with many foreign powers and influential characters. These alliances came back to bite El Presidente when he is betrayed and framed for the assassination of the US president. The second act “The Revenge” tells the tale of El Presidente starting again under a new identity with the goal of crippling those that betrayed him. After crushing these evildoers El Presidente discovers the mastermind behind the assassination. In an attempt to take the US presidency, Vice President Nick Richards (a wonderful parody of Richard Nixon) killed the US president and placed the blame at El Presidente’s feet. The third act “The Comeback” details how El Presidente cripples President Nick Richards with the help of Sasha, a KGB agent and turns Tropico into the paradise he had always dreamed of. An excellent tale told with the crackling wit that players have come to expect from the series, it is one of the only examples of a Sim/Management game with an entertaining story
Tropico 4 was also successfully ported to the Xbox 360, once more giving console player the chance to inhabit this political hotbed, the conversion again a resounding success. An expansion pack entitled Modern Times has was also released. This expansion includes 15 new missions and follows El Presidente as he brings Tropico into the modern era and all that it entails. Upgrading infrastructure, implementing bio-fuels, activating the internet and managing the global financial crisis are just some of the challenges El Presidente and Penultimo face in this fairly hefty expansion.
One thing is for certain and that is you can’t keep a good Presidente out of the spotlight for long. Tropico 5 came out in 2014 and was once again met with acclaim from series fans. Tropico 5 made a series of incremental improvements over the previous entry which added to the game in significant ways. Trade options, military actions and island management were all given a makeover, allowing players a greater range of options when dealing with the Tropico’s fickle populations. Perhaps the biggest addition however was multiplayer. Players could compete or cooperate with fellow dictators on a single island. This mode was a highlight especially if played by a group of friends. The time period was expanded as well with the story encompassing a period from the 1800’s all the way through to modern times.
Tropico 5 seemed to many to be a culmination of the Tropico series as a whole. Features had been polished till they shined and the gameplay is about as close to perfect as the technology available at the time would allow. In fact, apart from perhaps offering more information about the island’s economy, it was hard to see how the game could have been improved when it was released. Old and new dictators alike were rapt by El Presidente’s commanding presence and Penultimo’s goofy charm
Tropico 5 slowly but surely become a widely loved strategy game and it was even the first iteration of the franchise to appear on the PS4 and Xbox One. It has clearly filled a niche on consoles for gamers looking to strategise and control without having to be sitting at a PC. Tropico 5 really brought all the fun of being a Caribbean dictator to the masses, Penultimo would be very proud.
Yet another iteration of this franchise and another new developer. Released in 2019, this version saw Limbic entertainment take the helm and in the process adding quite a host of new features to the game. It continued the now firmly entrenched tradition of telling a humorous story within the confines of a strategy title. This time however the narrative was a series of individual tales as told from Penultimo’s perspective as he awaits rescue stranded on an island.
Perhaps the biggest change in how the game worked was the addition of maps with multiple islands to manage. This required some serious thought as to how you would set up your tropical paradise. One island could be used for resource gathering, while another tourism and so on. It was a welcome addition to the mix and added some extra layers of depth for those that went looking for it. That being said, Tropico 6 never quite reached the heights of 5 and it is hard to put a finger on why. There was something just that little bit off when compared to the previous title. Things like transportation of goods required a lot closer attention than previously and things could very very quickly spiral out of control, with the cause of losses not always immediately apparent.
That isn’t to say that 6 was a bad game, It just lacked some of the balance and finesse that 5 mastered so well. 6 Has been supported extremely well however with multiple DLC packs and console versions released. Tropico 6 also marked the first time the franchise appeared on a Nintendo console with a slightly handicapped Switch version being released last year. With more DLC planned and the possibility of next-gen versions surely being discussed, it seems there is quite a bit of life in both Tropico 6 and the franchise going forward so it should be pleasing for fans to know that El Presidente is with them for some time to come.
The success of this series has proven one thing above all, people like to laugh. Taking the serious genre of Sim/Management and turning it into a humorous look at one of the darker points in recent history was a stroke of genius. This humour has always been backed by top-notch gameplay making Tropico a must-buy for all fans of the genre. But what does the future hold for El Presidente and Penultimo? Hopefully, Penultimo squirrelled enough money away into his Swiss bank account to allow gamers to follow El Presidente and his attempts to rule Tropico for many years to come.
Viva El Presidente!