If you’re a strategy gamer, chances are you’ve heard of Tropico. Plopping the player down into the god’s-eye-view of a fictional ruler of a banana republic, the series was a fresh feel for the genre, swapping the drab and industrial stoicism of management sims of the time for something more akin to a tropical holiday – and like any good holiday, offering visitors a healthy dose of sea, sand, a few hundred hours involuntary labour.
The last 20 years has seen six entries in the series and though different creative forces have taken the reigns, an unbridled passion for emergent gameplay, dark humour and sun-soaked authoritarianism has been shared by all.
As El Prez cuts a few cigars and knocks back his umpteenth rum of the day, we celebrate 20 years of Tropico – a franchise that put the tongue firmly in the cheek of strategy gaming. Below is an assortment of weird and wonderful vignettes from the series’ past and present, so pull up a chair, crack a coconut and viva Tropico!
Debuting in April 2001, Tropico came as a breath of fresh air to strategy fans. Tasking players with establishing and running their very own banana republic, Tropico would be the first glimpse at the series’ potential, including features that would go on to define it for the next two decades such as deep management gameplay; the introduction of ‘El Presidente’: the ethically dubious leader of unknown origins through whom players could steer their island paradise into the stars (or the dirt if that was more their style); and a swinging island soundtrack. Playable dictators aside, Tropico’s soundtrack alone was noteworthy, not only for its obscenely large playlist but inclusion of German pop sensation Lou Bega (Mambo #5), who’s affinity for Cuba piqued his interest in the game and lead to his likeness and song ‘Club Elitaire’ being added to the German version.
Tropico 2: Pirate Cove
The franchise’s second entry, Tropico 2, did not disappoint, receiving a warm reception from fans and adding a new feather to series’ cap in the form of pirates. As king of the pirates, players could lead a mighty army, working alongside the disgruntled, sea-faring folk to earn coin, plunder, and build production lines for very important pirate resources such as rum and more rum. However, the inclusion of pirates didn’t simply emerge from the sea like an unwanted Kraken, the developer Frog City Studios credits the spark of creativity to the shower! Before pirates, Frog City had cowboys poised for the series’ bold new direction. However, following 1x bathing revelation from a developer-cum-vertical-Archimedes, pirates won the war and Tropico 2 raised its black flag.
Platforms: Windows, Xbox 360
Penultimo: An (Unauthorised) Origin Story
When developer Haemimont Games started work on Tropico’s third iteration in the late 00s, the Bulgarian-based team were already passionate fans of the series. In an effort to share his excitement for the project and boost team morale, the game’s lead designer wanted to share an old fan-made video of El Presidente and his advisor. Unfortunately, the internet had failed in its duty of preservation and the designer was forced to extract the video from a CD attached to an old Bulgarian video games magazine. The team loved the video just as much, even opting to honour its creator by naming El Presidente’s advisor after the character featured in the video. For now, the origins of the clip remain a mystery, but the creator will forever be ingrained in Tropico’s history as the loyal-to-a-fault 2IC to El Prez.
Platforms: Windows, Xbox 360
A Little Too Familia
Game development is always a bit of trial and error and during the development of Tropico 4, one such oddity reared its head that had the developer scratching its own. During elections, the game could befall a mysterious, unresponsive state. Following investigation, the issue was traced to elections and the game deciding that El Prez‘ running mate was in fact married to their own great grandparent! An in-built nepotism system which had it more likely for family members of the player‘s opponent to vote against the player paired with a loophole in the game‘s marriage logic (which made marriage to a great grandparent an unfortunate possibility) had the game hit an infinite loop on election days where it would try to comprehend the player‘s opponent‘s spouse and great grandparent as one in the same.
Platforms: Windows, Linux/Mac, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4
Comedy Equals Tragedy Plus Time
By this time in the series’ development, Tropico’s dark humour and tongue-in-cheek absurdity was deeply etched in the game’s DNA. From jokes about totalitarian regimes to the frustration and hilarity that came alongside offloading orders onto a bunch of unruly pirates, the series’ humour was a cornerstone and pertained to a particularly real origin story. Some development history in Bulgaria meant a good majority of the writers on Tropico 5 had first-hand experience with the horrors that came alongside growing up under a real-life totalitarian regime. Infusing this self-aware morbidity into the game gave the writing honesty, allowing anything to be a target for ridicule – from the horrific behaviour of backyard despots to the strategy staple of player-researched ‘technology’ as nothing more than basic necessities like bread and water. This trend would only continue throughout the series’ 20-year journey and prove to get even more interesting as time went on.
Platforms: Windows, Mac/Linux, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
In the release of Tropico 6, the series’ engine received a large overhaul in the form of the Unreal Engine 4. The game would be the first in the franchise to feature Epic Games’ latest (at the time) powerhouse and the new possibilities meant the developer could dedicate more resources to individual aspects, such as creating a more robust lighting system, increasing in on-screen particle effects, and allocating more processing power to the game’s simulation mechanics, meaning many more NPCs could bustle about the player’s archipelago. Tropico 6 was also a series ‘first’ for Xbox One – the power of Unreal Engine 4 facilitating a swift and painless code base migration from computer to console and enabling the game to arrive on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in September of 2019.
Realmforge Studios now spearheading the series, the future looks bright for Tropico and with another 20 years under its belt, one can only imagine the sunny days ahead for El Prez’ and co.