Before Master Chief became the gaming icon for his generation, there was a little Apple game developer called Bungie, and they made a game called Marathon. I waxed nostalgic for Marathon a bit ago, so I decided to give the series the full treatment it deserves.
If the symbol up there looks familiar, you probably first saw it when selecting your difficulty in the original Halo, and it’s one of the many touches that will make Marathon seem familiar, even if you’ve never played it before. Halo fans will appreciate some of the touches, like dual wielding shotguns and goofy level names. No dedicated grenade or melee button here, although you can dual wield your fists which makes for a badass (if ineffective) weapon.
The first Marathon game came out in 1994 and is long out of print, but Bungie, in an act of incredible generosity, released the source code for the entire trilogy, which has allowed fans to create a new engine called Aleph One that runs on Mac, PC, and Linux. Durandal, the second game in the series, is also available in a graphically enhanced edition on the Xbox live arcade. However, all three official scenarios–as well as fan created ones, including the excellent fan sequel Rubicon–are available for free here. Yes, Bungie really did give it all away to the fans when they left to make Halo.
If you played Doom, Marathon will seem both incredibly familiar and totally unexpected. Marathon’s level design is way ahead of its time; while there’s plenty of carnage to be had, there’s also dark creepy corridors, puzzles, and mazes. It’s much more like Half-Life, an atmospheric shooter of puzzles and darkness in the atmospheric expanse of a broken space station thick with hostile and bizarre enemies.
The Alien Pfhor are reminiscent of the Covenant only in respect to diversity; the slaver race plans on adding humanity to its collection after encountering the colony ship Marathon. That is, unless, a certain cyborg soldier and his supporting AIs have anything to say about it.
AIs–crazed or otherwise (mostly crazed) are a huge part of Marathon’s lore. 343 Guilty Spark has nothing on Durandal–a lovable megalomaniac bent on achieving true immortality by escaping from the universe itself. An AI created for the sole purpose of opening and closing the doors on a spaceship, Durandal decides that the alien invasion is the perfect time to assert his superiority over both races. Hilarious and philosophical, the AI is both friend and enemy throughout the series. In Marathon 2, he’s actually the player’s commander and guide, aligning himself with humanity while following his own agenda.
Marathon Infinity, the final entry in the trilogy, is probably the strangest of the games. It involves time travel, with different exits to the levels throwing you into alternate time lines. Some of the most lonely and haunting levels in the FPS genre welcome you in your journey to stop an unimaginable horror from being born from a dying sun.
Other than a dose of incredibly old school multi-player (with familiar skulls) Marathon is worth checking out for being a very clever shooter with an engaging story at a time when you couldn’t use those words in a sentence without laughing. It’s a world apart from the brainless fun of the classic Doom. You’d never believe that a game with virtually identical technology and gameplay could be so radically different in so many different ways.
Educate yourself with some good old-school fun, and find out why Mac gamers crying themselves to sleep.