Ruler Walks the Tightrope

aaron.curtiss@latimes.com

Winston Churchill once said that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute chat with the average voter. Maybe so, but a few hours playing "Tropico" reveals in a subtle and humorous way how democracy--for all its flaws--still works pretty well most of the time.

"Tropico" for the PC lets players take control of their own banana republic and wield Castro-esque levels of power over the daily lives of its residents. The goal is to lift the island out of poverty while maintaining a tight grip on the army and treasury.

And although "Tropico" allows players to rub out dissenters and declare martial law, there's a lot more to being a dictator than just wearing fatigues and driving around in a fancy car. In fact, it's incredibly difficult. No wonder so many end up getting fitted for concrete sneakers.

The game begins as players take over the presidential palace, which happens to be the largest, fanciest building on the island. Most of the other structures are shacks or shanties and the handful of residents eke out a living harvesting crops.

Poor and uneducated as they may be, the virtual people of "Tropico" know how to get rid of rulers they don't like. So it's critical to keep the masses happy. Initially, that's easy enough by converting some farmland to more lucrative crops such as tobacco. That brings in some quick cash, which can be used to build housing and maybe a church and a school.

Having full bellies and roofs over their heads is enough for many residents, but as they get a taste of the good life, they like it. Players are encouraged to import educated workers to help out on some of the more complicated projects. That introduces the value of higher education, which, in turn, makes everything more complicated.

Soon, players have to contend with intellectuals and communists and environmentalists--all of whom think their ideas should be incorporated into the governing ideology. At the same time, players must balance their relationships with the United States and Russia, both of which offer the lifeblood of any developing nation: foreign aid.

On its face, "Tropico" is just another civilization-building game--a "Sim City" set in the Caribbean. But in addition to its smart play, the game offers an engaging mix of humor and seriousness that draws players in. Sure, players can skim money off the top of building permits or just steal it outright from the treasury--but both have their own risks.

Although the premise behind "Tropico" is to rule as a despot, the ham-handed tactics employed by most modern dictators fall flat in the game. Holding on to power means making the people believe they have the best leader possible--a test that players must ultimately put to a vote.

It's then that players realize "Tropico" is less like "Sim City" and more like the old text-based game "Hammurabai," in which players managed ancient Babylonia. All the building and planning are a means to an end.

The economic and political models in "Tropico" are varied enough that players theoretically can have several different islands developing at once--each with its own set of realities.

The interface is simple and straightforward and players can click their way to huge amounts of data on individual buildings or residents as well as reams of overall demographic information. Monitoring these stats closely and looking for trends before they manifest themselves distinguishes the wise ruler from one who ends up getting an unexpected case of food poisoning.

'Daytona USA'

Perhaps the best news to come out of last month's Electronic Entertainment Expo was that Sega would support all of the major video game consoles over the next year. So although Dreamcast is going the way of so many other dead consoles, the great Sega game library will live on.

Playing "Daytona USA" for Sega Dreamcast is a reminder of how fun Sega titles are. Originally a coin-op arcade game, "Daytona USA" drops players behind the wheel of stock cars for action that--although less technical than some other racers--is relentless.

It's like playing an arcade game right at home. The colors are just as bright, the scenery just as detailed and the speed just as frantic. The courses range from easy ovals to complex circuits that zig and zag through amusement parks and desert canyons.

Plus, because Dreamcast is still the only console with Internet connectivity, players can race against as many as three friends online. Or, players can split the screen for head-to-head competition. Either way, vying for the lead with another human is the only way to go.

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Aaron Curtiss is editor of Tech Times.

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The Skinny

"Tropico"

Genre: Dictator simulator

Price: $40/$45

Platform: PC/Mac (Mac available July 31)

System requirements: On the PC, a Pentium 200 with 32 MB of RAM and 820 MB of available hard disk space.

Publisher: Gathering of Developers

ESRB* rating: Teen

The good: Varied play

The bad: Very little

Bottom line: Fun for aspiring tyrants

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"Daytona USA"

Genre: Racing

Price: $40 Platform: Sega Dreamcast

Publisher: Sega

ESRB rating: Everyone

The good: Fast and colorful

The bad: Not that complex

Bottom line: A good time

*Entertainment Software Ratings Board

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