Though the reach and convenience of the internet has rendered them obsolete in all areas but the nostalgic, it's hard not to miss the jam-packed shareware CDs of old. Each one was filled to bursting with demos, previews, and the First-Of-Four-Episodes-The-Rest-Of-Which-Can-Be-Yours-For-The-Low-Price-of-$19.99. Considering Circuit City would sell them in the $3 range, that was a heck of a deal. When it came to shareware publishing, one company was king: Epic Games (alternately known as Epic, Epic MegaGames, Potomac Computer Systems, and The Warehouse Where Tim Sweeney Kept All Those Old ZZT Discs). Sure, nowadays they're best known for Unreal and Gears of War. But for my Check Or Money Order, they were at their peak in the shareware age with such games as Jazz Jackrabbit, One Must Fall: 2097, and, of course, the game we are here to discuss today, Eclipse Productions' Tyrian 2000.
Let's not mince words. Tyrian 2000 was the best PC shoot-em-up of the 90s, and it still holds up remarkably well today. Players star as Trent Hawkins, ace terraforming pilot working under the command of shady multi-global corporation MicroSol. While scouting the planet of Tyrian, you and a friend come across a deposit of a newly-discovered mineral, Gravitium. You don't get long to enjoy your discovery, however. The next day your friend is shot in the back by a MicroSol hoverdroid. In his dying message, he reveals how MicroSol has begun to hunt down anyone with knowledge of the strange mineral... a mineral that will allow them to construct a nigh-unstoppable fleet of warships. Realizing you will soon be targeted, you secure a small fighter and head off to safety, a reluctant entanglement in the anti-MicroSol rebellion, and the battle that could decide the fate of the entire galaxy.
Tyrian's gameplay should be familiar to anyone who's plunked a quarter into a vertical-scrolling arcade game: use the [arrow] keys or the mouse to move. The game is happy to let you designate your own keys, but you can always revert to the standard [crtl] or clicking to shoot, and the [spacebar] to change firing modes. Destroy everything in your path, collect credits to upgrade your ship between levels, data-cubes to move the story along, power-ups to give your ship that little bit more of awesomeness, and always be on the look out for secret paths and easter eggs.
Analysis: Really, it's not what Tyrian 2000 does that makes it special, but how it does it. The amount of customization you can put into your ship, with its front and rear weapons, left and right sidekicks, shields, generators, and engines to choose from, is truly impressive. The difficulty is forgiving for beginners on Easy, and Touhou-like for those experts who dare to unlock Lord Of The Game mode. The levels are gorgeous VGA set pieces, with a wide variety of mooks to blast, and end bosses that are truly terrifying. The writing is hilariously snarky, but with a satirical edge wielded with a clear love for the genre. Throw in the gorgeous soundtrack, the hidden Scorched Earth mini-game, and the old-school ASCII order screen displayed upon quitting, and you have a classic of PC Gaming.
Tyrian 2000 (which, for the record, is an expansion, not a sequel to the original Tyrian) has been released as freeware by its authors, and is available for download from GOG along with the soundtrack in MP3 form (which is about ten times larger than the game itself!). Considering that it's going for for the low, low, price of "Two Minutes Fiddling With DOSBox", every fan of space shooters owes it to themselves to lose a couple hours to Tyrian 2000's charms.
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