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 primarially expansions on the main game: