This is a classic city builder or rather a 3rd world simulator. It is very different than games like Sim City and Cities XL. Those two games are more macro city builders, where in two or three mouse clicks you can make city blocks where 1,000 people might live. With Tropico and the Tropico series in general, you need to place each building, each road and your island along with the time it takes your construction company to build it. Your entire island might get to be 200 – 500 ‘Tropicans.’
Each Tropican has needs… Food, religion, job, healthcare, entertainment, safety and so on. The catch is every Tropican’s needs have a certain weight to them based on what political party / faction they believe in. Each faction has major and minor demands. The military will want more soldiers, so you need to build an army base. The religious faction will want a church or cathedral. The capitalist party will want privatization or upscale entertainment. The communist party will want you to enable the free public housing edict or have etiquette healthcare.
The real main objective in the game is to get re-elected. If you don’t, its game over. So to get re-elected, you need to keep your Tropicans happy. You don’t have to have elections even. You’re in charge. If you don’t want an election, you don’t need to have them, but eventually your Tropicans will rebel against you and make it game over! You can see preliminary poll results and you can even sway (cheat) elections. Tropico 1 seems extremely difficult to win an election compared to later Tropico games. On top of that, you balance political relations with the USA and USSR. If they get too bad, one of the two will basically take over your country and it will be game over. It is interesting how many ways that you can get game over.
When citizens hate you, and there will be plenty that do, they will either peacefully protest or become rebels. Once you have enough rebels against you, they will attack your most remote buildings. Your army will then go fight them, but if the rebels outnumber your army, the rebel will win and the buildings will be destroyed. The rebels can attack your palace or flat out assassinate you for a game over.
Tropico has a lot of scenarios, but it is not a campaign and the game doesn’t check off completed scenarios. Some scenarios last 30 minutes, others a few hours as you take an island from 1950 – 1990 or so. At the start of each scenario you can pick a player character from historical tropican dictators or make your own avatar. You can even make personality traits that will result in pros and cons. It can drastically change your play style if you are incorruptible and never have any crime or have a green thumb and have high farm yields at the cost of low factory production.
The controls feel cumbersome compared to later Tropico games. You need to click something to open the building menu, then select the type of building, then click the rotate building button. Then plop the building down. Sure that’s 4 clicks, but 4 clicks of specific areas and it could have been streamlined more maybe even with keyboard controls or having right mouse button or mouse wheel rotate the building as it does with later Tropico games.
The game feels a lot slower than later versions of Tropico, such as making buildings, you’ll need to wait for your builders to clear the land of shacks, demolish them, clean up the rubble, then clear the land of trees, then actually construct the building. Later versions of Tropico merely have it all instantly done, but tell you that it will take 20% longer.
Another problem with Tropico 1 is there’s not an easy way to tell what to do next. Sure every scenario has a major goal and clicking the almanac and looking through page after page can tell you statistical information and clicking every Tropican can show you their specific needs, but I never get an overall consensus, your people want a church or whatever they need. Instead it feels like a 1 by 1 search basis. You can see an overall Tropican pay chart, but not a religious satisfaction chart. Even if the game tells you how many people believe in a religious faction or a military faction.
With all of that in mind, I can’t really recommend Tropico 1 compared to Tropicos 3, 4 or 5. However, Tropico 1 is still a classic for an old PC and there is still a lot of fun and enjoyment here. If it was the year 2002 I would recommend this game. Also there are several cheap bundles where you can buy the first 3 Tropicos for $5 or so.