Game Pile: Tyrian 2000

The Game Pile has been a project of mine that’s meant to address one of those small sins of the modern era, the excesses of our entertainment. I was a child who had few games, but played them a lot; I’ve since become a grown man who has plenty of games, many of which have gone unplayed.

There are games I own that I’ve not finished; other games I have not finished but I have reviewed. More startling than that to me though are the huge numbers of games I have never played. These past few weeks I have played very, very few videogames, with most of my gameplay experience coming in fits and starts. What I’ve played, then, mostly, are games where I can abdicate my feelings and thoughts and just enjoy the experience itself.

Games like Tyrian.

Historical Context

Tyrian was a game that came out in the 1990s, as one of Epic Megagames’ massive shareware pushes. Epic and Apogee software spent most of the 90s marketing and distributing the works of dozens of smaller development studios – some that you may now recognise as meaningful (like, oh, say, id). Epic was distributing the games I usually preferred. Apogee had Commander Keen and Doom and Wolfenstein, sure, but man did Epic bring the games that ate days. Oh there was One Must Fall 2097 (and keep an ear out for developments on that front), but there was also this unassuming little crusher, Tyrian.

When Tyrian first hit my screens, it was as a simple top-down shmup. Shmups on PCs from the west have never really been a thing compared to how well they work on the more fast-paced consoles. In Japan, I understand shmups took on a whole new level, but in the mid 90s, there was a duelling pair of PC shmups – Raptor vs Tyrian.

Raptor is good. Don’t let me convince you otherwise. But Tyrian was special. Shmups on the PC often had to choose a sort of schizophrenic style of play; either you upgrade and design your own ship, building up a budget, and struggle to beat levels ahead of you, or you get these big, splashy arcade games where you could collect huge powerups and pick up coins and enormous hamburgers hovering in space. Tyrian was different in that the game would let you play the same levels in either Arcade mode (weapons as pickups, upgrades as pickups), or Story mode (with unlockable story pieces, building budget and weapon stores that vary from location to location). Tyrian split itself tidily between these two paths, but very cleverly used the same two levels for both.

The Play Of The Thing

Tyrian itself, when you play it, is a loud, fast, fairly difficult game with big, simple parts that fit together in familiar patterns. It isn’t one of your Japanese-style, Ikaruga-family style shmups – it’s far, far easier than that. Your ship has shields (which recharge while you’re not shooting) and armour (that doesn’t). You have a fore gun (which shoots, um, forward) and an aft gun (which shoots … other ways), and two sidekick guns that can usually be fired independently. While you’re navigating these elements around, your gun type can change in type and coverage. Some guns are very predictable and high power; some have blind spots, some can provide big bursts of damage. Some rear guns can be swapped to fire backwards or forwards. This is just outlining your ship, though, and things become very strange when you start involving enemies in the scrolling battle zones.

I’ve said that bullet hell shooters are a kind of maze, and Tyrian, at its finest is much like that. Enemies are placed in large coherent patterns, and knowing where they’re going to be will make life easier for you. On the other hand, while some enemies always fire in the same space, at the same rate, providing you the ‘walls’ of your maze, the vast majority of enemies fire at you, some with projectiles you can destroy and some with projectiles you can’t. There are no large, cohesive patterns of fire in this game. Enemies shoot at you, which complicates the ‘maze’ effect.

All of these parts are moving in sequence; if you take out enemies fast you don’t have to worry about their involvement in later patterns. If you’re in position to do that, you might not be in the position you want to be for later components of patterns. When you finish the game, it restarts, harder – and the game even makes a point about its endless, repeated cycling.

What I found interesting replaying the game, though, was the way it interacted with more modern pieces of hardware. If you play on say, a laptop keyboard, where you want to keep the spacebar down and move left-right-up-down quickly and fluidly, the game seems to lose some awareness of some button presses. I tested the game on my dad’s old (1996ish) metal-spring IBM keyboard, which didn’t have this problem, but it’s consistent on my laptop. Playing with the mouse isn’t great either – because you might be the kind of player who likes to swap their rear-weapon firing style quickly.

Extra Stuff

What makes Tyrian truly remarkable is the sheer amount of extra stuff you can do in play. There’s a whole sequence of special extra mode ships in arcade mode. There’s a long campaign that gets longer the more you play it. There’s a never-ending upgrade cycle, collectable data cubes which start being spam messages, and a variety of level styles. You can fly a space-ship designed like a ninja. You can fly a space-ship that’s a giant carrot. I have played this game for years and I still don’t think I’ve found everything in it.

Special mention goes to the two-player version of the game, though. In this game, the players have different ships – Player 1 is a Dragon Head, and Player 2 is the Dragon Wing. The Dragon Wing can have rear weapons and sidekicks while the Dragonhead can have fore weapons and special extras. What makes this much more interesting is that the two ships can dock together… and suddenly, the Dragonwing can fire their gun from a turret.

It’s a lot of fun.

Did I mention that there’s a secret version of Scorched Earth you can play in this game? Just tucked away in there? Okay.


Tyrian is free. You can just pick it up at GoG for nothing. I recommend it, certainly if you want something download-light with a lot of replay value.


Buy it if:

  • You can’t buy it.
  • It’s free.
  • It’s also pretty good!.

Avoid it if:

  • You want something as challenging as say, Ikaruga or a Touhou game.
  • You want to play it on a laptop keyboard that can be confused with a lot of input points.
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