So the year is 1993, and some crazy bastards from Texas calling themselves id Software have just put out a game for the PC called Doom. A game that plays from the first person perspective, has variable floor and ceiling heights, and is a Technological marvel made on an engine programmed by naias omniscient technomancer of the far beyond realms and actual, real life hyper genius John Carmack.
Now let’s say you are a video game developer who just saw this happen, saw how popular it got and also you have connections with Apple, and therefore Mac, a platform that at this time cant run doom, and therefore is a platform that is lacking a first person shooter to give its user base. Well, if you can imagine that, you can imagine what it was like to be working on Marathon in 1994.
Nowadays, we obviously know Bungie for the Halo and Destiny franchises, but back in the Day they were tied inextricably to the Mac platform and were probably ids main competitors, at least when it came to platform against platform. Now, Marathon wasn’t bungie’s First FPS game, that was Pathway Into Darkness, but Pathway Into Darkness is a fantasy game for one thing, and the other is that it plays more like an FPS RPG, with stats and an inventory, than a proper FPS.
Ok so this is all cool, I hear you say, but why are we talking about Marathon now? Well, for one thing Halo Infinite, a game series that bungie did following Marathon and a game that shares some interesting similarities with their previous works, is launching in just a week, and also coming up is Bungie’s 30th anniversary, which will be celebrated in Destiny 2 with a bunch of cosmetics based on their older games, Such as Marathon.
Marathon launched in 1994 for Mac only 3 months after Doom 2, and the same day as Rise of the triad, which did some of the exact same things Marathon did on a far more primitive engine (RoTT was made on the Wolfenstein 3d engine, where are marathon runs on something akin to dooms engine) kinda blowing the wind out of the games sails.
So with all that in mind does marathon hold up? well….
So Marathon ran on mac. Ok cool, I own a MacBook… yeah no. It ran on macs from 1994, not modern ones. If you have an original marathon copy and no retro machine to play it on, well sucks to be you. And, let’s not forget, I am a writer for a niche games website. I can’t afford to go out and buy a Retro Mac just to play some game from 1994.
So, source ports. A source port is a fan made engine based on the source code of a video game. Most older FPS have source ports, because they just would not run on modern hardware if they didn’t. Probably one of the Best Known is GZDoom, a source port of Doom that not only runs the original 2 games, Master Levels and Final Doom, but also runs Hexen, Heretic and strife. Other notable source ports include EDuke for Duke Nukem and build games, Chocolate doom for Doom but with a more vanilla feel than GZ offers, and Slavdoom, for if you want the game to run on Vodka.
Luckily For me, rather than having to wade through a hundred different Source Ports for Marathon there is only one. Aleph One is technically based off the marathon 2 game engine, but it is able to run all 3 games fine. Also Aleph One is downloaded with the games themselves, you dont have to get the files stand alone. Bungie have officially endorsed Aleph One which is why they are able to do this, but this means that these 3 games are all now free to play. And they run on PC
Yes, not only does Aleph one let you play the games for free, it lets you play the games, for free, on PC. which I did. I am a rebel.
Last couple of things before moving onto the actual game: you’re gonna need to adjust a few settings. Most of this can be done in game using the built in preferences menu. Aleph One includes key rebinding, renderer option for Software rendering or Open GL, and a suite of other features in the game itself, as well as an updated HUD which plays a lot nicer with modern sensibilities. What it does not have… is an FOV slider. And this is a problem. The default FOV both on the original HUD and the updated HUD is shockingly low, sitting around 60 on the updated HUD and even lower on the original. To change this, you have to go into the game files, into plugins and manually change the FOV in the FOV.MML file. This wont break anything (I had mine set to 120 and all I saw was a cutoff on the rocket launcher) but its a bit of a tedious step that could easily be an in-game option
Another issue to flag up is the alien gun, dropped by the Enforcer enemy late game. For me at least, the game would freeze the screen but keep running fine in the background when the weapon is picked up or equipped, making it borderline unplayable. I am not sure if this is a source port issue or a me issue but its is annoying enough to flag up here and did, on occasion, lead to death. [UPDATE: according to the people over at the Marathon discord, this is potentially caused by using the enhanced HUD in software rendering Mode]
Welcome to marathon
Marathon itself is set nearly entirely aboard the UESC Marathon, a ship orbiting the colony planet of Tau Ceti IV. The ship is boarded by Aliens called the P’fhor, and the player, taking control of a cyborg security guard, “Mjolnir Recon Number 54”, is tasked with taking them out. Along the way you will also encounter some other enemies that are members of other races the P’fhor have subjugated, such as the S’pht, the Wasp and the Hulk.
You are aided by the ship’s AI, Leela, who guides you through the first few missions, before being overridden by Durandal, the ship’s other AI who has gone insane and developed self awareness. The story is… there and it’s not bad, but it’s also not amazing. Durandal is an interesting character, never fully entering an “antagonist” space within the narrative but flip flopping constantly between being an aid and a threat. Leela is boring, and I think Bungie knows this as Cortana from halo is pretty much a reworked Leela who is a way more compelling character with her banter. The plot is easily ignored though, there isn’t much really going on and its all told via computer terminal, so if you just want to blast aliens, go for it.
Unlike a lot of its peers, marathon tends to have level objectives that need to be completed to advance. Some of these are simply “reach the exit terminal”, but others are different. Some missions, especially those featuring the Friendly BoB Npc’s are based around merciless extermination of the P’fhor, with you only able to move on once every last alien is dead. Others, specifically the ones set on the alien spaceship, require you to explore the entire level, sans secrets, before making your way to a window to teleport out.
That’s another thing Marathon does: teleports. Levels don’t end with a stats screen, you teleport out of the last level and into the next one. While this does not create an unbroken world like Strife would later try, it does lead to the game feeling much more like a single adventure than a set of levels.
As for the levels, they are fine. I don’t think marathon ever really does anything exceptional with its levels but for what they are they work acceptably. One of my biggest gripes though is the switch puzzles. Slightly too frequently throughout the game you need to turn switches on and off at precise times to make it across gaps. This can be frustrating, and really doesn’t tend to gel well with how you play the game.
Guns, Guns, Guns
Marathons Guns are a little different to what your probably expect from the arsenal of a boomer shooter. For one thing, they all reload, which was unheard of at the time. Sure, the super shotgun from Doom Reloads, and 2 years later Duke Nukem would reload his Glock after every 9 shots, but that was it. In Marathon, everything needs to reload.
You start with a Pistol and a fist. The Pistol is pretty good. Not the most accurate thing but far from inaccurate and can be used akimbo for double fire rate. Your Fist… is a Fist, it sucks, don’t use it.
The first weapon you are likely to get after that is the Assault Rifle which doubles as a grenade launcher and it will become your best friend. The grenade portion… doesn’t really function like a grenade launcher, the rounds fly mostly straight and don’t bounce, meaning its more like a low damage Rocket launcher, but what they can do is press buttons. That’s right, we are using grenades to flick a switch. Also you can grenade jump with it, which… feels like a bug honestly? Like there are places where you are clearly meant to use it to escape pits for example, but it never feels intentional.
Also there’s the Plasma Pistol, which can fire both a standard shot for higher damage than the base Pistol or can be… charged with alt fire to send off a higher damage projectile? Look I get it’s not plagiarism if you do it to yourself but gees.
There’s the Flamethrower, which is great against lower tier enemies but does bugger all to anything that is even slightly armoured, the Rocket Launcher that cant press buttons, and “The Alien Weapon”, which as previously discussed makes the game unplayable so I barely used it. [UPDATE: Again, I am a dingus, this is caused by running the game with the advanced HUD in software mode.]
Your main enemies are going to the P’fhor. They come in a number of varieties. Purple and green armoured P’fhor are melee only, with purple having a chunkier health bar. Red and blue can shoot a projectile attack, but are otherwise identical. There the troopers, who wear Space suits and have an assault rifle. There are green and purple troopers, with the purple ones MAINING THE GRENADE LAUNCHER ALT FIRE OH GOD JESUS CHRIST! Then there are the hunters, h0eavily armoured P’fhor who shoot green stuff at you. 2 colour variations, brown and green, but this is just health. If they are killed with an explosive weapon they blow up, so thats nice.
Finally there are the Enforcers, who drop the alien gun that haunts my nightmares, and the Juggernauts, who show up in one level and are flying tanks which shoot 2 homing rockets. They are extremely tough and, while you only encounter them in a single level, its a level where you are required to kill all 4 of them to move on.
Along with the P’fhor are a number of sub races of aliens. Wasps come in swarms but are relatively weak, the Hulks are large with high health but have no ranged attacks and show up in a grand total of 2 out of the 27 levels, and The S’pht are floating cloaks that launch orbs as you. A word on the S’pht: if you are hit with their attack, the screen will glitch, which could be a major issue for players with photosensitive epilepsy, so maybe dont play the game if you have that, as they are a common enemy that appears throughout the whole game.
Finally there are the Simulacrum, BoB clones who run at you and explode. They can be differentiated in this game because they say “thank god its you” rather than “they are everywhere” and also they all were green. Shoot the green BoB’s.
The curse of 2.5D
Marathon, like all other games of its era, isn’t true 3D. These games are considered 2.5D, and have a number of limitations. However, Marathon gets past some of these. For one thing, you can look up and down, although due to how this is rendered looking up gives you a fish-eye lens effect, similar to games on Ken Silverman’s Build engine. Another trick is that Marathon can handle room over room. Doom notably cant, and to be fair marathon probably can’t either. It’s all smoke and mirrors using teleporters and fake lifts. However, this is still technically impressive for the time, so I am not knocking it.
Marathon is a fine game. Its perfectly competent and when playing through it you can see some of the building blocks bungie would go on to use to craft Halo. however I could never shake this feeling playing it that the whole reason for its success was because it was for mac.
Mac users didn’t have anything else, and while marathon is good, it lacks a level of polish and skill that games like Doom have. I think if your a fan of Destiny or Halo, yeah, you should probably check out Marathon, if only to see where they came from. But for the average person? Probably skip it
Bungies 30th is coming up and I plan to make it though the other 2 games in the marathon series soon.
If you are interested in playing Halo Infinite or Destiny 2, you can do so on Xbox series X/S, which you can register interest in at go2games.com
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