Epic Games, Inc. You might have heard of them. Back when they were Epic MegaGames they enjoyed some moderate success with a game called Unreal, and later as Epic Games they made a bit of a name for themselves with the Gears of War series. But obviously, like all right thinking people, you remember them best for the 1995 masterpiece Tyrian.
Released back in 1995 the vertical scrolling shoot-em-up was – and remains – the best of the genre on the PC. Arcades and consoles may have had their R-Types and Gradiuses – and Ikarugas, Dariuses, DoDonPachis, Espgaludas, Sine Moras, Psyvariars, Gunbirds, Twin Cobras and… well you get the picture – but the PC was never so well served.
As a shooter Tyrian was a great game. Gorgeous artwork and graphics, immersive FX and music, responsive controls and well-balanced upgrade mechanics all added to the core of the game which was a fast, fun and frenetic shmup. It never descended to bullet hell levels, and was actually rather simple to finish, especially compared to the brutally difficult games that typify the genre, but on harder difficulties there was a definite challenge there. But Tyrian wasn’t about rewarding dedication and memorisation, the joy wasn’t in making it a stage further before being cruelly atomised, or adding a few numbers to your high score. No, Tyrian was about fun, pure and simple. The levels flowed, pretty graphics and skilfully composed music drawing the player into an enjoyable shooting experience.
That’s not to say it was perfect, of course it wasn’t. The controls were occasionally erratic, the ships’ hitboxes often seemed to operate on a decidely non-euclidean set of rules and the primitive network support was frequently unusable. But these were minor flaws, never game-breaking, and did little to impact the fun.
While it was possible to finish the game in a single sitting without much of a problem, the game didn’t end there. Tyrian, you see, was an act of love by designers having too much fun themselves. Finished the game? Here, have a password. It unlocks a new ship with new weapons. Off you go. Finished again? Have another. This one shoots hot dogs. And this one fires a grotesquely overpowered laser. Shurikens. Goo. And when you’re done with all that? Mini games.
I spent as much time with the “Destruct” game as I did with Tyrian itself – a great little side-view shooty thing with a random selection of gun emplacements facing off against each other. You can control one at a time and they have various effects. Slow firing barrage that fires in a parabolic arc. A plasma weapon that shoots in a straight line but bounces worryingly. A dirt gun for rebuilding your defences. First one to die loses. Simple but addictive and could easily have been a game by itself. The fact that it was thrown in as a hidden extra just shows how much the developers loved working on the game.
And the soundtrack. Anyone who even vaguely knows me knows I’m OBSESSED with video game music, and Tyrian is no exception. The score was composed by the wildly talented Alexander Brandon, responsible for much of the Epic MegaGames discography including Unreal and Deus Ex, not to mention Thief, Neverwinter Nights, Alpha Protocol and Dust. The team was justifiably proud of his soundtrack, to the extent that the developers included a jukebox and visualiser so players could enjoy the soundtrack at their leisure.
Tyrian was a true labour of love, the product of a team thoroughly engaged with their work, doing what they enjoyed. The core of the game by itself would have been a classic. Taken as a whole though, Tyrian is one of the all time greats.