The mid-90s were an interesting time in computer gaming. At the same time that computer gaming was taking its first faltering steps into the then-unexplored realm of 3D, some truly fantastic 2D games were released. Among these is Tyrian, a game that derives a unique charm by offering a huge amount of both customization options for your ship and bonus content in a technically solid game that at no point takes itself completely seriously.
Set in a faraway star sector, Tyrian is a fairly generic sci-fi-themed shooter on the surface. You’ll pilot your ship through a wide variety of vertically-scrolling, parallax-rendered environments. While the hand-drawn graphics are relatively low-resolution, they have aged fairly well, especially when compared with the early-CG-rendered style that was in vogue at the time. The game also features some frequent transparency work, used to render translucent clouds and vapor trails, colored filters, or dark stages. The overall effect is fairly satisfying.
Tyrian‘s gameplay is significantly slower than most modern vertical shooters, and the fact that your ship has both shields (which regenerate with time) and armor (which can be recovered through pickups) makes it far more forgiving than many shooters. Between your shields and armor, your ship can take so much damage that despite its’ large hitbox, even the the harder difficulty settings the game are still fairly easy.
The real attraction of the gameplay is the amount of customization afforded to you: between stages in Tyrian‘s “full game”, you’ll visit a shop where you can replace or upgrade your ship’s equipment. Your ship comes equipped with four weapons systems: a Front weapon, a Rear weapon, and a pair of “sidekicks” – small independent ships that float alongside you. The Front and Rear weapon consume energy when they’re fired and can each be upgraded a number of times; how fast your energy replenishes depends on your ship’s generator, which can also be upgraded.
There’s a certain variety of player who derives a great sense of satisfaction from tweaking out his mech in the Armored Core games to look, act, and feel just the way he likes it, who spends minutes swapping out parts and armor pieces to make it handle just so. Tyrian has a reasonable amount of meat in it for the same sort of player – one who’s willing to put some care into figuring out what the best use of his funds are: is the power consumption of that new weapon worth it? Does he need a new generator to offset his weapon and shield regeneration, or is that money better spent on a new hull? Are the ammo-based sidekicks working, or would the auto-firing ones be better? At the same time, unlike Armored Core, the system isn’t so involved as to be intimidating; the player who just wants to buy a bigger missile launcher and be done with it won’t be completely overwhelmed either.
You’ll be piloting this heavily-customizable ship as Trent Hawkins, scoutship pilot and terraforming engineer, as he battles the evil corporation Microsol (which, of course, bears no resemblance whatsoever to a certain purveyor of operating systems in Washington State…). The game is split into five “episodes”- when the game was originally released, it included only the first three episodes; episodes four and five were each provided in a later release.
The story is so-so for the first three episodes; it’s fairly standard shooter material, told largely through “Datacubes” which you’ll collect as you progress through the game. Some of these are obtained automatically, but many must be located by defeating enemies. This is a bit of a liability for most of the game – you’ll frequently miss datacubes, and this renders the plot extremely disjointed. At one point early in the game, Microsol kills your character’s parents; this fact is not only possible but easy to miss entirely.
Things begin to look up in the fourth episode, however, as the writers seem to figure out the limitations of the “datacube-collecting” system and begin giving you almost all ‘important’ datacubes automatically. Furthermore, while the plot had never really taken itself particularly seriously to begin with, over the course of episode four it steadily becomes a parody of a shooter’s plot. After the third or fourth time you’ve saved the universe, the fellow giving you your missions starts to take over a sinister aspect as Trent begins to grow increasingly irritated at being asked for help constantly, every minor villain you’ve met so far drops out of the woodwork to be the new biggest bad guy, and news reports lament that war has become “just a matter of a scoutship destroying huge attack fleets singlehandedly.”
The more interesting datacubes are actually those providing flavor text – there are a great many of these scattered throughout the game. Most shooters aiming for humorous effect lean towards the bright colors and off-the-wall randomness of Parodius or Harmful Park; Tyrian takes a drier route, more akin to British comedy than madcap anime zaniness. It appears to be a serious game on the surface – and can be approached as such – but it’s also a game that’s happy to look you in the eye and, with a straight face, sell you a flying carrot equipped with guns that fire hot dogs, pit you in battle against a disembodied nose, or provide an amusingly self-referential explanation of why destroyed ships leave giant coins behind. Tyrian is a solid game, but it also never forgets it’s a game- where many games seem preoccupied with immersion and storytelling, Tyrian is perfectly happy to admit that it’s ridiculous for enemies to drop fruit and beer, turn it into a joke, and move on without skipping a beat.
While running straight through the game will take you through perhaps two dozen stages, nearly a third of the game’s levels are secret – reachable by collecting bonus items in the game’s normal stages. How to obtain these items varies widely; some are hinted at through datacubes, and others you’ll have to find on your own. Exploring these bonus areas often gives you access to rare and powerful equipment, but it also means that you’ll still have new things to see and do your second and perhaps even third and fourth time through the game. This is something I’d honestly like to see games do more often- while it doesn’t extend the game to the point of tediousness, it does mean that replaying the game isn’t simply a matter of going through the same areas and seeing the same things. Furthermore, because the equipment selection available will change based on which stages you visit, your path through the game will have a lasting effect on your ship’s setup.
In addition to the “Full Mode”, Tyrian features an “Arcade Mode” on the main menu. This mode removes the between-stage shops and datacubes, putting weapon pickups in the normal game in their stead. The game loses a lot in this mode, however, as this essentially disables two of the game’s best features. Furthermore, the weapon pickups are poorly balanced, making it very easy to grab an overwhelmingly powerful or uselessly weak weapon. On the other hand, the two-player arcade mode supports simultaneous play and adds the novel feature of allowing the two players to combine into one large ship. A number of variants on Arcade Mode are also available: The codes to play in Super Arcade Mode are provided as bonuses; this provides variant of arcade mode, featuring a number of ships with unique armaments. Super Tyrian Mode functions similarly, but removes weapon drops entirely and gives you a ship with a wide variety of weapons activated by Street Fighter-style “twiddles,” and in the end has many of the same problems.
The best of the ‘Bonus Modes’, without a doubt, is Destruct: a fully-functional minigame, based on the oldschool “Artillery” game. It is a mini-strategy-game featuring multiple units, different “scenarios”, the option to play either against the AI or a second player, deformable terrain, and some really impressive particle effects.
Tyrian saw three separate releases, although these were primarily expansions on the main game.
Tyrian – DOS, Windows (1995)
The original release of Tyrian included the first three episodes of the game. It was marketed as shareware, like many other games at the time. The first episode was available and distributed for free; it ended with a prompt to buy the full game, which included episodes 2 and 3.
Tyrian 2.0 – DOS, Windows (1995)
Tyrian 2.0 was released shortly after the original. The primary addition it offers to the series is the fourth episode (Mission: Suicide). Gameplay-wise, this mission isn’t quite as interesting than the first three. It’s longer than the others, but also linear to a much greater degree – it takes advantage of neither the occasional “Split paths” seen in the first three episodes nor the secret stages that were so common therein. Furthermore, the game’s shops were really paced for three episodes- if you’ve played through the first three episodes, you’ll probably have finished tweaking your ship’s setup and buying upgrades to your weapons systems, leaving you little to do between stages. That being said, the new episode includes quite a bit of new artwork and features a wide variety of environments and enemies.
After several years of dormancy, a new release of Tyrian was made in 2000 by a company called XSIV Games, partially to promote another product in development – a game called Pretzel Pete which, as far as I can tell, was never developed into more than a demo. Among other things, this new iteration added compatibility with Windows 2000 and XP (although compatibility issues still exist with sound). As with Tyrian 2.0, this update adds a new episode. This short fifth episode centers around a struggle against Zinglon, the frequently-mentioned deity of the Tyrian sector, and a plot to seize the sector’s food supplies. This plot is really pretty thin, and has the arbitrariness of the first three episodes without capturing the self-referential charm that made episode 4 amusing. In general, it’s pretty forgettable.
Only a handful of new stages have been added in this episode; while there is a branching point between nearly each one, they only number half a dozen in total and you’ll only see half of those an a single runthrough. While some new equipment has been added, none of it is particularly notable- all in all, this release had a bit of a tacked-on feel to it.
In addition to a new “Time Attack” mode, this update added two new Super Arcade Mode ships, neither of which were particularly compelling: the Dragon and the Pretzel Truck, latter taken from the aforementioned and ill-fated Pretzel Pete.
Besides compatibility, perhaps the best feature offered in this update was remixed, CD-based versions of the game’s music tracks – these are nicer than the synth tracks that were included in the earlier releases of the game.
Tyrian 2000 – Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance (unreleased)
After Tyrian 2000 was released, a company called Symmetry Entertainment spent some time attempting to port Tyrianto the Game Boy Color and later Game Boy Advance. The team that worked on these included Jason Emery – the original programmer – and also the original composer. It did not include the original artist, but most of the artwork was clearly based on his work.
The Game Boy versions of Tyrian were significantly toned-down from the original on a technical level due to the system limitations. While it did feature a “full game” mode, the storyline was communicated through between-stage cutscenes rather than the original’s Datacubes. The Game Boy Advance version retained much of the Datacube flavor text, but did so in the form of a bonus ‘data’ section accessible from the game’s main menu. Although your ship was still fairly customizable, the “rear weapons” were removed entirely, and only one of your two sidekicks could be active at once in the Game Boy Color version. On the other hand, the Game Boy ports introduce an additional twist: unlike the PC version, some sidekicks have ‘support’ effects such as consuming shields to restore your armor or providing temporary invincibility. Although many of these effects exist as twiddles in the original game, it’s a nice addition to the ports.
The graphics have made a better conversion to the Game Boy Advance than the Game Boy Color, of course, although they’re decent in both places considering the hardware they’re running on. The sound and music in the GBC port took a fairly serious hit – most of the tracks have been completely remixed, and are thoroughly forgettable. The released GBA ROM is incomplete and does not have sound.
Both games suffer from the same serious gameplay issue: the combination of the large amount of damage you take when an enemy runs into you, your large hitbox, the small screen size, and the speed at which enemies appear and move renders many levels frustratingly hard. This issue is compounded by the fact that in both games, this set of levels includes the first.
The GBA and GBC versions are both downloadable for free from the Tyrian repository; according to Emery, the GBC port was nearly ready for release when it was scrapped, while the GBA was in a much more embryonic form.
The Zanac Connection
Tyrian was clearly partially inspired by Compile’s classic Zanac – in fact, that was part of the game’s original sales pitch. A handful of sound (notably the “Secret Level” jingle) were taken more or less directly from Zanac, and some enemies seem to be lifted (or at least heavily inspired) by enemies from Zanac. Also, the power-ups appearing in Arcade Mode look and act similarly to those in Compile’s later effort Gunhed / Blazing Lazers. The effect Tyrian uses to display your ship flying off at the end of a level is used in several Compile games, including both Zanac and Super Aleste.
A number of stages in Tyrian use the “turret-mass” minibosses seen in Zanac; this seems to be more prevalent in the early stages, particularly the “Asteroid” stages. Judging from some prototype screenshots that have since surfaced, these asteroid stages were among the first completed.
The three people most responsible for Tyrian – programmer Jason Emery, artist Dan Cook, and composer Alexander Brandon – have since gone their separate ways, so a “true” sequel to Tyrian is unlikely at best. The publisher of Tyrian 2000 – XSIV Games – has also since gone bankrupt. The good news is that in the wake of this announcement, Jason opted to release the game as freeware – sans Tyrian 2000‘s CD-based audio – and to release the source code as well. A number of ports and unofficial sequels are currently in development based on this code.
While it is a little dated, Tyrian is a solid vertically scrolling-shooter with a surprising amount of meat to it. It’s not a particularly long game, and it’s pretty easy throughout, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in tweaking your ship and exploring the game’s secret areas. Tyrian 2000 runs under modern versions of Windows, but its sound doesn’t work; it also runs reasonably well under DOSBox.