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.