Marathon, the original Bungie sci-fi shooter

How the precursor to Halo made Mac ownership less painful.

Few creatures have ever been as ferociously tribal as the '90s Apple fan. It may be difficult to imagine now that Apple is the richest entity on the planet, but the '90s were not a good time for the company. Windows 3.1 wrecked Mac OS's special snowflake status, and Apple's own executives seemed hellbent on finishing the job with an endless succession of lousy-yet-expensive computers (eg the underpowered $7,500 20th Anniversary Mac) and interesting-yet-underbaked ideas (eg the Newton PDA).

Yet loyalists clung to their Macs, convinced of Apple's innate superiority. They watched with resentment and envy as developers abandoned the platform in favour of DOS, Windows, and even consoles; they cherished what games did make it their way. Mac-exclusive games were a cause for jubilation. And that rarest of rarities, the Mac exclusive on par with the other guys' cutting edge? Well, those went down as a thing of legend.

So you can perhaps forgive old Apple veterans if they get maybe a little too enthusiastic about the Marathon series. Designed exclusive for Mac by a little-known Chicago-based studio called Bungie, Marathon combined the twitch action of Doom with the plot and structured mission objectives of System Shock. Featuring sophisticated level design, a complex narrative, and impressive visuals, Marathon probably would have been a massive hit had it appeared on PCs first. Instead, it became a beloved cult classic-and its DNA continues to inform Bungie's other shooters, including Destiny: The Taken King.

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Marathon wasn't the first time Bungie had explored the first-person shooter concept, but their previous effort - Pathways Into Darkness, also a Mac-exclusive - fell more in line with Ultima Underground than with Doom. It was essentially a graphical adventure that just happened to involve occasional shooting from a first-person viewpoint. Marathon, however, put gunplay first and foremost. While incredibly limited by modern standards (enemy AI generally consisted of running directly at the play while occasionally pausing to take a potshot), it stood toe-to-toe with the giants back in 1994.

Marathon gave players a glorious array of unique weapons with which to inflict carnage on the alien Pfhor (an alien collective, a la Halo's Covenant) and just about every gun had some sort of alt mode or other modifier. The assault rifle suffered from a cone of fire that made it painfully inefficient at a distance, but its secondary trigger launched beautifully accurate (and powerful) grenades along a gentle arc, capable of wiping out a knot of bad guys or, in some of the more puzzle-like stages, triggering switches to activate doors and elevators. And Halo fans would feel right at home with the plasma pistol: Its secondary fire feature was a charged shot that, when unleashed, inflicted extra damage on heavily shielded characters and cyborgs. It also introduced the idea of picking up alien weapons and discarding them once the ammo ran dry-a Halo mainstay.

On a technical level, Marathon impressed by featuring multiple planes of action and the ability to aim up and down, forcing players to exercise precision. A quirk of the game engine even allowed the designers to create multiple overlapping areas within a stage, despite the game running on the same fundamental sort of 2.5D tech as Doom and Duke Nukem 3D. It ran well on older Macs and sang on shiny new PowerPC systems, even with a dozen enemies and all their projectiles clogging the screen. Interactive stage elements demanded a modicum of cleverness, and in its best moments-particularly the mission to the vacuum-shrouded surface of a moon base, where dwindling oxygen, deadly foes, and maze-like corridors created a profound sense of tension-Marathon played like no other shooter.

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But the reason fans really remember Marathon is because of its story. While something of an optional feature, those who took the time to read the computer terminals (required in order to complete each mission) found an intriguing tale of rampant AIs, alien invaders, and twisting allegiances. The colony ship USS Marathon has come under attack by alien slavers, who have overrun the massive vessel and seem hell-bent on killing everything aboard. Poke around the ship's data files and eventually you'll piece together the full story, which involves cyborgs and Martian uprisings and a rogue AI who summoned the bad guys as an act of rebellion.

The hero, a Marathon security officer who happened to be extravehicular when the aliens arrived, teams up with one of the ship's three AIs, the ever-helpful Leela. Eventually, though, the rogue Durandal takes control, sending the player on a number of missions to achieve his own ends and eventually to reconnoiter the aliens' ships. The computer terminals don't simply explain the twisting plot, they also provide context for the varied mission objectives, from saving colonists to activating defense droids to sealing portions of the ship to, ultimately, destroying the slavers' control system and allowing their client races to rise up against them.

The sequels expanded on this premise, with Marathon 2: Durandal offering an even more twisting plot to go along with its radically improved graphics engine.The final game in the series, Marathon Infinity, featured some of the finest old-school FPS level design ever to grace a computer screen, as well as one of the most opaque video game storylines ever. But that, too, fuelled the series' fandom: The truly loyal Marathon enthusiast continued dismantling and analysing Infinity's plot for years, eventually figuring it out through collective effort. As a small way of saying thanks, Bungie dropped its first-ever Halo teasers through cryptic emails (aka the Cortana Letters) to the editor of Marathon's most prominent fan page.

With all these things going for them, you can understand why the Marathon games were such a point of pride for Mac fans. Even if, technically, they weren't completely Mac-exclusive-Marathon 2 showed up on Windows, far too late to matter, and a console-style remake called Super Marathon was released in extremely scarce quantities on the Pippin @mark, of all things. But it was exclusive enough for Mac fans to treat the series as a point of pride - and for Bungie's defection to Microsoft's camp a few years later to feel all the more bitter a betrayal.

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About the author

Jeremy Parish

Jeremy Parish

Contributor  |  gamespite

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