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Tyrian (PC) artwork

Tyrian (PC) review

"The greatest shoot-'em-up ever made"

Tyrian (PC) image

Few video game genres are as intuitive as the scrolling shoot-'em-up; move a ship around while shootin' up the bad guys. Yet few genres are currently so niche as this simple mode of gameplay. This strange disparity is due to no inherent flaws of the shmup genre but by flawed design that permeates almost every title. A game in which repetition and memorization is the only way to avoid dying in one hit from waves of oft poorly telegraphed obstacles is not an acquired taste. That's bad game design. This, along with blatantly insubstantial amounts of content that banks on the player wasting time doing the same stages repeatedly due to getting one-shotted or obtaining worthless bragging rights, has resulted in the genre having very limited appeal. However, Tyrian stands above its competition, achieving a level of quality that puts almost every other game of its genre to utter shame.

An immediately apparent aspect that promotes Tyrian above other shmups is the customization system. Unlike other shmups that have points systems to pad a blink-and-you'll-miss-it campaign, Tyrian's points system doubles as currency to buy various upgrades, including weapon powerups, new ships, more weapons, options, shields, and a generator that allows for more efficient use of these. Player skill is rewarded new tools of destruction, and the player can re-appropriate spent upgrades to try out new ones, encouraging experimentation and adding replay value by diversity. Some upgrades appear after certain levels, instilling long-term strategy into customization that stays fair thanks to an incredibly user-friendly saving system that includes both autosaves and dozens of spaces for manual saves, a much better system than having to beat the whole game in one sitting.

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Speaking of user-friendliness, Tyrian's chief brilliance is its health system. Most other shmups never grew a brain and developed beyond the primitive extortion-by-quarters arcades, killing you in one hit. Tyrian actually wants you to have fun, so you have a multi-layered defense system. First, a shield bar that regenerates if damage is avoided long enough. Next, a health bar instead of just one touch resulting in death. Finally, drones that replenish health if you can reach them, a hail-mary that requires player skill to make use of. Even if you do die, you must restart only that level; no game overs or extensive rehashed content by failure. At last, a shmup with a system that sets no arbitrary gate to player entry!

If all this sounds too easy, believe me when I say it isn't. No aspect of gameplay is overpowered, and you'll still need skill to deal with hordes of tough enemies and bosses. The difficulty never reaches bullet-hell levels of hatefulness, but there's no way you'll be getting past some of these challenges without an understanding of the game mechanics and thoughtful customization. You can even use an option to adjust the game speed whenever you feel like it. For you MLG-types, try one of the many difficulty modes, which actually improve enemy AI and projectile speed instead of just slapping on a few more steel hulls on every foe's ship. See how tough you really are after "Lord of Game" mode kicks you to the curb!

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To recap, Tyrian is better than all its peers because it has superior customization, weapon diversity, user-friendliness, health systems, learning curve, gameplay speeds, difficulty modes, and AI. And we're just getting started!

Tyrian's levels are challenging but never trollish. Each is neither too long nor too short, letting that one life last just long enough to raise the stakes once things start heating up, but the game never feels spiteful if you lose that life and start the level over. Levels last long enough to be tough, but each attempt rewards the player with experience and a better idea of what to do next time, never revoking too much progress in doing so. The varied obstacles you must overcome never rely on nonsensical, untelegraphed attacks that give the player no time to react, so it's a good type of challenge, one that teaches the player through each loss instead of demanding repetition.

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Most shmups have only 10 levels at most because the devs stretch the game out by unfair, time-wasting deaths, but Tyrian has precluded that option, so only one approach remains: actual content. Tyrian boasts dozens of levels with beautiful variety: mining quarries, coral reefs, planetary cores, flesh-asteroids, war fleets -- the list goes on, and you'll be seeing dozens of levels no matter which of the branching paths you take. Plus, levels hide many secrets, such as hidden superweapons, methods of unlocking bonus levels, and more. Tyrian's levels may not have the spectacle of, say, Thunder Force 4, but they've more substance, more variety, and -- can't stop me now -- more quality!

As if dozens of levels wasn't enough content, Tyrian has secrets and bonus modes! For instance, every ship has its own super-attack that can be activated by a button combo, adding yet more depth to customization. A two-player mode allows for the use of two ships onscreen that can even combine to make a sort of twin-stick shooter mode that gives divides control of movement and multi-directional aiming. Plus, it's perfectly feasible for one to just control both halves and end up with yet another totally new way of play. Don't get me started on all the other secrets, such as the cheat codes, hidden Scorched Earth minigame, and the Christmas mode!

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To recap, Tyrian is better than all its peers because it has superior customization, weapon diversity, user-friendliness, health systems, learning curve, gameplay speeds, difficulty modes, AI, content, level design, branching paths, location variety, secret mechanics, co-op functionality, minigames, and cheat codes. Time to add the finishing touch with a regard that Tyrian does better than not just every single other shmup, but most other games: the writing.

Great writing in a shmup? Yep, Tyrian just had to have a good plot, too. Between missions the player is gifted a better understanding of the world of Tyrian by reading various audio books, some of which are rewarded by defeating enemies in levels. As if this game wasn't running laps around the competition in terms of replayability. Penned by programmer and composer Alexander Brandon, Tyrian's writing is sometimes humorous, sometimes dark, but always creative. You are war-worn Trevor, who finds himself at odds with the nefarious Microsoft, erm, Microsol Corporation, and thus an intricate shifting of alliances ensues, resulting in meeting some memorable characters with great dialogue along the way as you struggle to just get out of the whole situation.

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In terms of writing, Tyrian could be best compared to Doctor Who and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a good balance of serious situations and levity within fascinating sci-fi. An example is when an attempt to reverse a reaction that would have caused a planetary core to overheat results in the planet getting frozen instead! Even without its unique brand of humor, Tyrian still is a fantastic setting, with such elements as a living planet of organs or a weaponized planetary electromagnetic sphere adding incentive to get those log books and adding more nuance to a game that works just fine as a collection of memorable levels.

To recap, Tyrian is better than all its peers because it has superior customization, weapon diversity, user-friendliness, health systems, learning curve, gameplay speeds, difficulty modes, AI, content, level design, branching paths, location variety, secret mechanics, co-op functionality, minigames, cheat codes, plot, characters, dialogue, setting, personality, and writing in general. Yeah.

So there you have it. The greatest shmup ever made. Tyrian is not flawless - I wish for a remaster to help free it from hardware limitations on the audio-visual fronts - but it's so much better than it had to be, especially considering the low standards set by other shmups. This is what the genre should aspire to be. Tyrian is truly a game that goes above and beyond the call of duty. Respect.

Oh, and did I mention it's freeware?

Follow_Freeman's avatar
Community review by Follow_Freeman (June 16, 2018)

When he isn't in a life-or-death situation, Dr. Freeman enjoys playing a variety of video games. From olden shooters to platformers & action titles: Freeman may be a bit stuck with the games of the past, but he doesn't mind. Some things don't age much.

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If you enjoyed this Tyrian review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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honestgamer posted June 18, 2018:

Your opening sentence about the side-scrolling shoot-em-up is a bit confusing, since the game you're reviewing is a vertical shooter. The next sentence also needs to be cleaned up, because it got too complex for its own good and that led to some grammatical issues. Otherwise, though, the writing throughout was quite solid on a technical level. Your tagline promises the game is the greatest shooter ever made, and while your review didn't convince me of that (a lot of the best shooters are made excellent by the very things your text ridicules), you did make me head to GOG to ensure I had the free game in my library. I apparently already did. Or at any rate, I do now. I like vertical shooters, so I might someday even play it! In any event, it's clear you like the game a lot, and your review outlines the reasons for that without becoming dull in the process, so I consider it a success.
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Follow_Freeman posted June 18, 2018:

Thanks for the feedback! I fixed the incorrect jargon to avoid any further confusion. I would be interested in knowing what you thought were positive points of the genre that I spoke poorly of, since I'm a bit worried that the review is a lot less objective than it aims to be. I do feel passionately about the subject matter and the decline of a genre I'd like to see held to a higher standard, so I hope that showed in the writing, at least. And I'm sure you'll enjoy the game, even (if not especially) when played in bite-sized bursts!
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honestgamer posted June 18, 2018:

The tone throughout your review suggests you believe the genre in general is designed almost solely to gobble coins while punishing players for enduring the design. A lot of people who play through shooters love working their way toward mastery over those elements. They don't necessarily consider bullet hell difficulty to be hateful, as you do.

But your goal with a review, especially one that claims a game is the best of its genre, shouldn't be objectivity. A lot of what any review contains, unless it is literally describing features in completely neutral language (and maybe even then), is subjective. So that's something to be mindful of any time you're attempting to be objective within a particular mode of writing (such as a review) that is inherently subjective.
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Follow_Freeman posted June 19, 2018:

I can't really see how getting killed in one hit is a widely applicable feature of any game, much less one in which taking damage is all but inevitable, but I suppose that's where we agree to disagree. I think I covered my bases on the difficulty side of things by detailing the difficulty modes and how they dynamically alter gameplay, so I guess that covers everything. Again, thanks for the feedback!
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bwv_639 posted May 01, 2020:

I have been thinking of this game genre quite some time, lately — and I have been moderately playing some of its best games. I am also saddened by the genre being close to extinction, especially when you don't count low-production level indie shooters.

Steam achievements statistics for Ikaruga, which is an average-difficulty shooter in the context of the last ≈ 20 years of the genre, say 0.9% of players have completed the game without using any continues "in any mode". We can safely assume at least half of them beat the game on Easy. Since having actually learned/enjoyed a game means more or less to have beaten it, and to have actually beaten it means to have completed it without continues on Normal, this means ≈ 0.45% who got Ikaruga on Steam (we can reasonably assume it's at least slightly more-than-average skilled folks) could learn and seriously enjoy it.

Ikaruga is a sort of moderate entry to the bullet-hell genre. If it was a Raizing, or Cave, shooter, that 0.45% would be divided by at least 5, and you'd have, at most, 1‰ of players who could seriously enjoy the game.
And, in the last 20 years, "bullet hell" and "shooter" have become synonyms.

So, while I agree with most remarks by honestgamer, and disagree with a couple of criticisms of the genre in the review, I also can't understand while all the best developers, at some point in time, decided to make things impossible for 999/1000 players, or, in the more moderate cases (such as with Ikaruga), 199/200 players, in all the games in their portfolios.

Had the purpose been coin-gobbling, the difficulty would have been lowered substantially in console/computer ports; it's more of an unreserved adhesion to idealistic principles of game design, which spiralled, got out of control, and led to the genre's demise. You can't confuse the world of Twitch streamers, YouTube let's players, with the real world of even serious, patient, commitment-willing videogame players.

This said, enemy and bullet patterns in games such as Ibara or Mushihimesama belong in the art dimension, and they aren't there to conceal the game's lack of content or design laziness. Pity that, from the sixth console generation on, they didn't think of making, besides some works of videogame art, games that, though challenging, would be playable.

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