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IMG's Marathon Primer
September 29, 2005 | Marcus Albers

Back in the early nineties, when gaming still primarily consisted of 2D action and pre-rendered 3D adventures, a game broke onto the scene that changed the direction of computer gaming. The game was Doom. It used an advanced pseudo-3D rendering engine to give a gameplay experience like no other. The first-person perspective gave the game an eerie reality that kept many a gamer enthralled into the wee hours of the night as they explored the nooks and crannies of a Mars base taken over by the demonic hordes of hell. As impressive as this was, a small company dedicated to Macintosh gaming was brewing something even better.

Presenting the Contender
In 1994, Bungie released their answer to Id's FPS juggernaut: Marathon. On the surface, Marathon seemed to be just another Doom-clone (a bona-fide gaming sub-genre by this time). The graphics engine was quite a bit more advanced than Doom's, though, allowing the player to look up and down, and introducing more advanced multi-height levels. But it was still just running around corridors, blasting at baddies. Or was it?

As anyone who has played the game will tell you, the real allure of the Marathon series is the story behind it. More than a simple B-movie sci-fi plot, Marathon takes you deep into the story of colonization gone wrong. The first game finds the player aboard the Marathon, a colonization ship in orbit around the planet Tau Ceti IV. Soon, the Marathon is overrun by an alien race known as the Pfhor. The Pfhor want to enslave the humans on the ship, and you take it upon yourself to save the humans from their would-be captors. As the game progresses, you check out what is going on around the ship from terminals scattered around the ship. Most of the information early in the game comes from one of the ship-board AIs, Leela. Soon, you will find that there are two other AIs on the ship, Durandal and Tycho. As the game advances, you will find that Durandal seems to have his own agenda, using the humans against the Pfhor.

Continuing the story is Marathon 2: Durandal, released the following year. 17 years after the events of Marathon, you find yourself on the S'pht homeworld Lh'owon. The Durandal AI from the ship sends you on a mission to gather information about the Lh'owon that it can eventually use to defeat the Pfhor. Marathon 2 had the distinction of being the only Marathon game released for both the Macintosh and Windows (Windows 95, at the time). While most improvements in Marathon 2 were invisible to the end user, the graphics engine was given a boost, to take advantage of the new PowerPC Macintoshes that were becoming more and more prevalent. Greater color depths and resolutions were made possible, and the sound was given a quality boost, as well. Also of note was the addition of external physics and level files, which would later make it possible for players to create their own Marathon worlds.

In 1996, Bungie released Marathon Infinity for the Macintosh. UK Macintosh magazine MacFormat gave Bungie the joke award for "largest version number increase" in going from Marathon 2 to Marathon Infinity. The plot of Infinity is confusing, to say the least, taking large chunks of the plot from Durandal and acting as if they didn't happen, while throwing the protagonist into and out of alternate realities, with the eventual ending occurring millions of years after the end of the original games.

While the engine behind Infinity was largely unchanged from Durandal's, the most important addition to Infinity was the inclusion of the physics and level authoring tools, Anvil and Forge, respectively, used by Bungie to create the levels for the Marathon series. This opened up a whole new world for Marathon fans. The tools were very open-ended, allowing the designer to stick with familiar Marathon aspects, or scrap everything and create something totally original. This gave the designers the chance to use the Marathon engine to create their own entries into the Marathon universe, or to create an entirely new universe to play in.


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