Tyrian 2000

Shoot-em-ups have been a quintessential video game genre since their earliest days, but never had a huge presence on the PC platform,  whether due to technical limitations or just the more cerebral target audience.  However, there were a few that tried to break that barrier, and one in particular that I got addicted to in my youth was Eclipse Productions' Tyrian.  A demo version was packed in with a Packard Bell desktop computer my family owned, which got me hooked on its gameplay.  However, it wasn't until much later that I found out the game was rereleased as "Tyrian 2000" with a new episode and plenty of extra content added.

As the game starts up, you get a pretty slick logo (symmetrical, even) and a choice of game modes - Story, Arcade and Timed Battle.  Arcade makes the game play much more akin to an arcade shoot-em-up, with powerups dropped by enemies throughout and all the between-level story scenes removed.  Timed Battle is a choice of three stages where the player tries to rack up as many points as possible on a short time limit.  But the real meat of the game is its Story Mode, easily the longest and most in-depth of the the three.

The plot plays out in the form of data transmissions, with more being unlocked as you play through the levels and collect flashing "Data cubes".  As the story unfolds, you play as Trent Hawkins, a pilot working for the Microsol corporation as they attempt to terraform the planet Tyrian.  However, things quickly start to go wrong...

Trent's friends and family end up dead after it comes to light that Microsol is after a rare material that could make their space fleet unstoppable.  Trent then embarks on a crusade against Microsol, intent on stopping their evil plans and bringing them to justice.

The other standout feature of the story mode is an intricate shop and ship customization system.  Not only can the player purchase stronger ships and shield generators as the action ramps up, but there are a huge variety of weapons to mix and match to their tastes as well.  As a general rule, "front guns" tend to be the most powerful (but expensive), rear guns provide supporting fire (and often multiple firing modes), and "sidekicks" are small ships that accompany the main one and provide extra firepower when the right mouse button is pressed; not unlike the Options from the Gradius franchise.

The Sonic Wave can fire either to the sides or diagonally forward, swappable at the press of a key

Money and "points" are interchangeable in this mode; each time you destroy enemies, pick up various powerups (mostly in the form of diamonds and coins, though things like giant fruits and mugs of Ale appear in later stages) or just smash up background objects, you'll earn more points, which you can then spend on upgrading your ship's loadout before the next stage begins.  Another nice feature is that when a weapon is swapped out, it will automatically be "sold back" to the store at full price, letting you put that currency toward other weapons at no loss to yourself.

Tyrian also has some relatively unconventional mechanics for a vertical shmup.  Front and rear guns operate off a power bar, pictured in red at the right; the more you shoot, the more it depletes.  However, if you have a decent enough generator (and you really should), this mostly becomes a nonfactor, as you'll regenerate power far faster than you drain it.  But if your generator isn't quite up to snuff, you'll probably have a much tougher time getting through the levels as your firing rate slows to a crawl.

Another unusual feature is that your ship has both a shield generator and armor to protect you from attacks.  Generally speaking, when your Armor hits zero, your ship is destroyed.  However, while your shield will absorb damage to a point and regenerates itself over time, armor does not; if your armor gets low, you must instead shoot down a small brown ship that appears and collect the resulting powerup to restore it and get yourself out of the danger zone.   Thus, unlike many shmups, the game isn't all about avoiding any hits (which becomes all but impossible in the later stages), but being careful to avoid particularly large obstacles and dangerous enemy shots to take only a manageable amount of damage to keep yourself alive.

Things like spikes and flying dragons, for example, will quickly tear your ship to shreds!

Of course, most every stage has a boss to fight as well, and per genre standards, they can quickly flood the screen with bullets and hazards, and take huge amounts of punishment to put down.  Careful maneuvering, as well as a constant barrage of firepower, become the keys to victory here.

Once a stage is over, your score is tallied up, you're told how many foes you've defeated, and the number of data cubes you've collected is displayed.  If you've also managed to find a trigger for a hidden stage (generally by defeating a specific enemy or blowing up a particular background structure and flying over its remains), you'll be informed of that as well.

Top priority: Buy a better ship!

Adding considerable replay value to the game are branching paths, giving the player a choice of two possible levels (but not both) at certain story points.  There are also numerous secret levels throughout, some of which take the form of minigames; a couple in particular resemble Galaga and Buster Brothers.  Others are just extra levels to play through for things to blow up, which means more points.  However, there are quite a few of them, and all are quite entertaining to play.

Sometimes you just get some really bizarre Data Cubes too

The game also contains numerous secrets, including a "Super Tyrian" mode where the player gets only a basic ship and weapon, but can unleash powerful attacks by putting in certain button combinations a la Street Fighter.  There are also "Super arcade" modes that challenge the player to complete various stages with specialized ships, and even a hidden minigame called "Destruct" that bears a strong resemblance to Scorched Earth and other artillery combat games.  As the player completes the game, they'll be given cheat codes to unlock these modes, adding more content to an already meaty experience.

When all is said and done, Tyrian is a standout game in the genre, as well as one of my favorite PC games to this day.  Its tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, as well as a plethora of content, make it a treat for both die-hard shmup cans and casual gamers.  The fact that it's available for free only sweetens the deal; really, the only downside is that Eclipse Productions never produced another game after this one.


Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar

For today's Free Game Friday, we look at an RPG.  Not just any RPG, though, but an undeniable building block of the genre; one that any serious follower can tell you is one of the most groundbreaking aind important role-playing video games ever made.

After complaints about the questionable themes and violent content of some early Ultima games (mostly from the parents of children who played them), Ultima IV sought to give itself a deeper and more satisfying theme.  Rather than simply defeating some great evil, your goal was now a much more complex one.

With no great evil to unite against, Britannia's people are now without purpose or direction.  As a result of this, Lord British has created the eight Virtues in an attempt to give them some guiding principles.  Thus, you are given your new task: master all eight Virtues, venture into the Stygian Abyss and recover the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, which only one who has mastered the virtues can reach.

This theme permeates through every aspect of the game, most prominently in its character creation system.  You are faced with a series of seven choices here, and which virtue you ultimately favor determines your starting class, level and town.  Favoring Honesty, for example, will start you as a Mage in Moonglow, while Compassion will start you in Britain as a Bard.  Those looking for a challenge can favor Humility, which starts the player off as a humble Shepherd.  True to the virtue they embody, they can use no spells, have the worst equipment choices of any class and begin at level 1, making the game much more challenging to complete.

Becoming a paragon of virtue is taken very literally in the game itself as well, as the player must take steps to embody the eight Virtues at every chance.  For example, giving money to beggars will count toward their Compassion score, while fleeing from battle will lower their Valor.  Similarly, doing things that were loosely acceptable in earlier Ultima games (like stealing money or attacking townspeople) are now heavily punished; if the player has already earned an eighth of their Avatarhood, doing something bad can actually cause them to lose it, forcing them to build their total back up and go through the whole process again.  In the case of particularly bad crimes, this can even cause them to lose multiple eighths and have to redo a significant portion of the game!

So be damn sure not to stiff the blind reagent sellers!

But while the task itself sounds easy on paper, it is quite a long and involved journey.  Exploring the dialog system (vastly expanded from earlier Ultima titles, and RPGs in general) is mandatory in order to discover clues to the locations of various items.  This includes not just the Runes and Mantras needed to meditate at the eight shrines, but also important items like the Silver Horn that wards off demons and the eight stones which are needed for the final leg of the quest.  Keeping a notebook handy is highly advised, as much dialog will need to be cross-referenced with that of other characters in faraway towns.

Meditating at the shrines will give clues for how to boost said virtues, and maxing them out and meditating three times will grant an eighth of the Avatarhood

Becoming eight parts avatar is only the first part of the journey, however.  One must also recruit the seven other heroes of the Virtues, venture into the eight dungeons throughout Britannia to acquire the stones and the three-part key, and finally make the journey to the Stygian Abyss, the game's longest and most challenging trial.  Only by braving all of its dangers, solving all of its puzzles and proving one's mastery of the virtues will their quest finally be completed.  At least in a temporary state, because, as the game says, the quest of the Avatar is an everlasting one.

As you can see, there is quite a lot to Ultima IV for a 1986 game; not only is it a deep, well-realized RPG with a lot in the way of lore and character interaction, but its concept is nothing short of ingenious.  The player is no longer simply "the good guy" because they're on a quest to stop some great evil, but they actually are required to play the part of a selfless hero - helping those in need, proving their valor, humility and honesty and solve all of the game's mysteries, all in the name of a quest that will be to the benefit of all of Britannia's citizens.  It's a long adventure with a relatively dated interface (from the period when every key on the keyboard was mapped to a separate function), but nevertheless, it is a very important staple of the genre and well worth undertaking for any serious fan.


Sega Swirl

Puzzle games have long been a staple of gaming; from the early days of games like Tetris to popular modern examples like Candy Crush, pretty much every platform and company of note has a handful of them for casual and core gamers alike to enjoy.

Sega's contribution to the genre in the late 1990s was Sega Swirl, developed by Scott Hawkins.  Seeing a release on the PC, Shockwave and Palm OS, it also appeared on their final, short-lived console, the Dreamcast, on a number of demo and Web Browser discs, and as part of the Sega Smash Pack compilation.

This version also featured a significant aesthetic overhaul from the others, with much more varied and polished animation effects when swirls were cleared from the screen and a full soundtrack, among other bells and whistles.

But we're here to talk about the PC version, which is one of only two versions still publicly (and legally) available for download).

It has a very Klik n' Play feel to its menus and overall design!

The premise of the game is a relatively simple one: Clear all of the swirls from the screen while meeting a set number of goals in each stage.  Clicking a swirl will highlight it and all of the swirls of the same color adjacent to one another; clicking again will clear them from the screen, awarding the player bonus points depending on how many were cleared at a time.  However, clearing only a single swirl will actually subtract points, and doing this too many times will fail one of the level's clear conditions, so care must be taken not to leave too many strays on the board while clearing out larger combos.  Should the player manage to clear the entire board without clearing a Single, the points they earn for that round will be doubled.

Clicking the "check" button will bring up a list of conditions required for the stage:

These are all fairly self-explanatory, with the exception of the Big Column Bonus.  When an entire column of swirls is cleared from the screen, bonus points are awarded.  A condition of 3 Big Column Bonuses indicates that you must empty three columns in a single move in order to clear this stage.

Stage mode is fairly basic; the player is presented with increasingly challenging level layouts and condition lists, and they try to get through as many levels as they can while earning as many points as possible.  When a board is cleared without all of the conditions being met, the game ends and they add their name to the high score table.

Versus mode is more or less the same thing, though with up to four players taking alternating turns and trying to get as many points as possible.  One odd feature is that this mode can actually be played via e-mail; not unlike Chess-by-mail, each player watches one move unfold, then takes their own turn, sending a message along with it if they choose.

All the stock fonts and sound effects you can handle, baby.

Attempting to pick the option for split screen mode, however, just brings this up:

Sega Swirl 2 was actually made, but was only released via the short-lived GameTap online gaming service.  As GameTap is no longer available, we can officially count that one as being lost to the ages.

In spite of its limited, low-budget and somewhat obscure releases, Sega Swirl remains a pretty entertaining puzzle game.  There is a surprising amount of strategy in figuring out how to clear each board while meeting all of the win conditions.  It takes a bit of doing to get working nowadays (as it does not seem to run in Windows 7/8/10), but if you have a virtual machine service available, Sega Swirl proves to be a surprisingly addictive title in short bursts.


Zero Tolerance

The first person shooter genre had its renaissance in the 1990s, with Wolfenstein and especially Doom ushering in a new era of realism and fast-paced gameplay, and it seemed like everybody was trying to cash in.  They were mostly prevalent on computer platforms, whose stronger hardware allowed for 3D capabilities and impressive, fluid visuals that the more limited console hardware simply couldn't match.

There were those who tried, however.

You can't see it here, but the title scrolls past the guy and casts a pretty cool shadow effect.

One such person was Randal Reiss of Technopop, who undertook the daunting task of developing and releasing a shooter on the Sega Genesis.  And surprisingly, he pulled it off rather well considering the platform's limitations.

The viewport is kept to a relatively small size to maintain the framerate (low though it is), but there is quite a lot of information portrayed on the HUD.  The bottom has a real-time minimap that shows the player's location, facing and any nearby enemies, while the top shows five slots for weapons and equipment in the player's possession.  The number on the left counts all of the enemies on the current floor (which you want to reduce to zero), and the number on the right is your health (which you do not want to reduce to zero).

Appropriately, you begin your journey with only a basic handgun and a few bullets and must scavenge more weapons as you go, with most enemies encountered early on dropping more handguns.  Shotguns are a common sight on the early floors as well, though they don't seem to have a huge advantage over the pistol - basic enemies die in a single hit from either and they have about the same fire rate.

Pressing Start will also bring up a map of the current floor you find yourself on, as well as a password to continue from your most recently secured floor (cleared of all enemies).  Printed on paper, no less.  A bit low-tech for a game about an alien invasion set aboard a space station, I must say.

The game's controls are simple, but work well enough on a three-button Genesis controller.  C cycles through your inventory (with the active weapon or item located in the center slot), B fires your current weapon, and A is your movement button; pressing it in conjunction with Left or Right causes your character to strafe, down crouches, and Up stands from a crouch or jumps from a standing position.  Turning in the game is relatively slow and the enemies move pretty quickly, so strafing will quickly become your best friend as the enemies begin to get more numerous and aggressive.

The occasional hallway-clearing flamethrower doesn't hurt your chances either

Other pickups exist to provide temporary aid as well.  Health packs restore 20% of your health, which is always handy, and the Bio Scanner shows enemies' positions on the radar before they've seen you, allowing you to get the drop on them more easily.  Bulletproof vests also exist that allow you to take a few extra hits without eating into your health total, a fireproof suit lets you walk through fires around the ship without taking damage, and flashlights and night vision goggles allow you to see in dark areas.

 Adding a bit more depth is that the game features multiple selectable characters, slightly similar to Apogee's Rise of the Triad.  While similar for the most part, there are some differences in starting equipment and abilities.  Ishii begins with a bulletproof vest and is allegedly the best marksman of the group (though I saw no noticeable difference while playing) while Haile, the "demolitions expert", begins with two mines that let him set traps for enemies.

Gjoerup begins with a Bio Scanner, though as it's a temporary powerup that only lasts about a minute, this advantage is rather dubious.  Wolf is probably the best character overall as he gets double healing from health packs, which gives him much more longevity than the rest.  Most humorously, Ramos is a "hand to hand combat expert" and starts with no weapon at all, but allegedly puts down enemies more quickly with his fists.  This proves to be rather moot, though; if you're stuck trying to punch enemies in this game, you're probably boned.  Enemies tend to move quickly and each of their shots sends your character flying backwards, making it almost impossible to land a punch.

Interestingly, the five characters also serve as your "lives" in the game - if one character dies, you pick another character and continue playing from the exact point where they died.  If all five are killed off, it's a game over, forcing you to return to the title screen or input a password.  For this reason, it's probably best to save your better characters for the later stages and use the weaker ones early on.

Enemies also become more varied and interesting as the game progresses.  At first, they're the fairly standard gun-toting soldiers, but in later stages you'll meet enemies like wall-hopping aliens (pictured above), who are relatively small, speedy and hard to hit.  Later stages feature creatures like mutated dogs, hulking alien beetles which are dangerous in close quarters, and even a couple of relatively tough bosses like the "Sniper" who can take you out in short order.

One nice detail is that the scenery in the game is interactive to a degree - enemies will leave visible blood drops behind when killed, which can linger on the floor or even splatter on the wall, and most walls in the game can be damaged by gunfire, replacing their standard appearance with a cracked and broken one.  It's ultimately nothing consequential to the game itself, but in a world before Duke Nukem 3D it was a pretty cool sight nonetheless.

The game also featured digitized voices, alerting the player to things like picking up weapons, running low on health or audibly alerting them when the floor was cleared of enemies.  A pretty cool feature (and relatively rare on the Sega Genesis), but it does tend to get annoying after a while as you'll be hearing a lot of the same few clips in a relatively short period of time.

Another innovative feature of the game was that it actually featured two-player cooperative play, albeit in a rather unconventional way.  As the game does not support split-screen (no surprise, as the Genesis struggles with rendering the game's graphics as they are), a second player joins in by having another copy of the game, a second TV and Genesis system, and a special link cable connecting the two (a free giveaway to buyers who mailed away a coupon included in the manual).  An innovative, if roundabout, solution to allow for a two-player campaign in a game that was already pushing the system's hardware to its limits.

When all is said and done, Zero Tolerance is a technical marvel for 1994, showing the world that the Genesis could handle a competent first person shooter.  By that same token, however, it certainly shows its age - the low framerate, chunky pixelated graphics, limited sound design and somewhat sluggish controls make it a rather rough experience, especially by today's standards.  However, I found myself having a surprising amount of fun playing it, and with nearly forty unique stages to play through, one can definitely tell its developers endeavored to give Genesis fans a lot of value for their buck.  It may not be the genre's best, but fans of retro first person shooters owe it to themselves to give this one a look.  And they can quite easily, as its developer has released it to the internet for free.

He also released an early build of the cancelled sequel, Beyond Zero Tolerance.  The overall feel of the game is very similar, though we can see that this game would have starred a new cast of five characters and, in contrast to the first, would follow the protagonists as they took the fight to the aliens instead, delving into the depths of their homeworld. Compounding this, the player's radar is not fully filled in at the start of each stage; instead, walls are drawn onto the screen as the player views them in-engine.  A nice detail that gives the feel of exploring an unknown, alien environment for the first time.

It is also a much more difficult game than the original, with enemies actively seeking out the player and proving to be much more aggressive, frequently sneaking up behind you and attacking you from behind.  They also seem to be much harder to hit and kill this time around, though whether that's due to incomplete programming or an intended feature is unclear.

I didn't manage to get very far for the aforementioned reasons, though I will say that the elevators have a very HR Giger feel to them



A game known to many PC gamers of the mid-90s, Hover! was actually a free inclusion with the CD releases of Windows 95, serving to show off the shiny 3D capabilities of the operating system and prove it could be a viable gaming platform in its own right.

The title screen admittedly makes it look more exciting and fast-paced than it proves to be

At its core, Hover! is a game about hovercrafts playing capture-the-flag.  Namely, the player (the red hovercar) is pitted against a team of blue hovercars (the Drones) and moves about one of three maps, trying to collect all of the blue flags before the Drones collect all of the red flags.  Players and Drones can also knock each other around, either to send them off-balance momentarily as they approach a flag or into one of the many traps strewn about the board (more on those in a moment).

The "Castle" stage

The game begins at Level 1 with three flags placed for each team in random locations about the board.  As the game goes on, however, more drones get added and the number of flags one must pick up will steadily increase, up to 6 total.  Both of these contribute to the game becoming progressively more difficult, as having more flags to gather and more drones to contend with quickly puts the player at a disadvantage.  However, point values also steadily increase as the level gets higher and higher, allowing the player to build up a much higher score if they can manage to survive.

Some other relatively cool features for the time were a real-time rear-view mirror at the top, which let the player keep tabs on chasing opponents or spot the occasional flag behind them, and a minimap that would show a surrounding view of the player and draw in walls, flags, enemies and powerups in real-time as they approached them.

At the end of each stage, the player gets points for each flag they've collected, each flag left uncollected by the drones, as well as a general level completion bonus, before the next stage begins.  There are only three levels in total, and depending upon the player's choice, they will either be randomly picked or cycle in a predetermined order, starting at the "Castle", moving on to the "City", and finally a "Sewer" level.

Drones aren't the only hazard in each area, however.  There are a number of tiles on the ground that can hinder the player.  The most common of these are arrows that send the player in a set direction for a short distance, usually enough to deter them for a few seconds.  The others are "tar traps" that lock a hovercraft in place for a few seconds, and most deviously, tiles that will deplete one collected flag from that team's stock, placing it back in the maze in a random location.  The last of these can occasionally aid the player, however, as if they encounter a Drone carrying a flag (indicated by its color changing to green on the minimap), they can knock them into this tile to take the flag from them and buy themselves some more time to complete the level.

Numerous green orbs also inhabit each stage, which contain a plethora of power-ups and "power-downs" that can help or hinder the player's efforts.  Three of these can be stockpiled and used at any time via the A, S and D keys - namely, the player can set temporary walls to hinder his enemies (pictured above), pick up a cloaking device to mask his presence from drones for a short time, or use a Spring that allows them to jump over hazards or reach platforms they normally cannot.

This is sometimes required for success in the "sewer" stage, as flags occasionally spawn atop floating platforms

Others are used immediately when the player collects them.  A green traffic light will temporarily boost the player's speed, while a red light will slow their speed to about half.  A shield will temporarily protect them from all stage hazards and negative power-ups, a lightning bolt will short out their minimap (forcing them to redraw it from scratch) and a question mark orb will have a random effect.

Of course, being a hovercraft-based game, physics are also modelled to a degree - you don't stop or turn on a dime, and you can easily overshoot your target if you're constantly going full-speed in any direction.  There is an option in the game's menu to make the controls generally less touchy, but it's best to get used to how the momentum operates and use it to your advantage.

While the game is still playable even on modern operating systems like Windows 10, there is sadly there is no multiplayer function, and its fixed resolution makes it a somewhat cumbersome experience to play on modern HD monitors.  However, there is a browser-based remake of the game, released in 2013, that gives the game a significant visual overhaul, speeds up its gameplay and even allows online matches with up to eight friends.

You're also given a choice of three cars, each with different stats.  Chicago has good handling and power but low speed, Bambi is extremely fast but has very poor handling. and Wizard is something of a mid-point between the two.  Unfortunately single-player mode also lacks any kind of scoring system, making it more of a warm-up for multiplayer matches than anything else.

All three levels from the original game return here, though you wouldn't recognize them right away with the Tron-esque textures they've been repainted with.

This is the castle stage.  Yes, really

While ultimately nothing outstanding, Hover did its job as a technical demo well, showcasing the impressive (for the era) 3D rendering capabilities of Windows 95 and proving to be surprisingly fun and addictive, constantly pushing the player to get a higher score and memorize the level layouts to give themselves an edge in doing just that.  While it probably wouldn't keep you away from Doom for very long, it was nevertheless a nice little bonus to accompany your spendy new operating system, and remains a fun game to dust off and play a round of once in a while to this day.