Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/06/06/antique_code_show_bungie_software_marathon_trilogy/

Marathon

Halo's forerunner

By Tony Smith

Posted in Games, 6th June 2012 11:00 GMT

Antique Code Show Back in the early- to mid-1990s, the Mac wasn't considered much cop as a games platform. Sure, it had a sexier GUI than Windows boxes, but they could drop out into DOS and dedicate their CPUs' few tens of megahertz to games. Not so the Mac.

But that didn't stop coders from trying to make the most out the Mac. Early groundbreakers like Spectre and the original Prince of Persia showed the Mac could be a good games machine. But it was Bungie Software, the company that would go on to achieve world fame for the Halo series, to put Mac gaming on the map with the platform's first fast first-person shooter, the sci-fi epic, Marathon.

Marathon: the original UI

Marathon 1: too few CPU cycles for a bigger screen, unless you were willing to play HUD-less

Just as iD's Doom evolved out of the more basic Wolfenstein, Marathon built on Bungie's slower, more adventure-like FPS Pathways into Darkness. Running on the Motorola 680x0, Pathways could never deliver a Doom-like experience, but with the arrival of the PowerPC chip, Marathon could and did.

And it contained some impressive tech. iD's pioneering shooter didn't let you look up or down, but Heretic, a sword-and-sorcery shooter based on the Doom engine did. But it looked wrong.

Marathon 2's superior UI

Marathon 2:Durandal looked rather better

Marathon got the angles right by implementing perspective correction, though it took the game's sequel, Marathon 2: Durandal to fill the screen sufficiently to make this feature stand out. But the realistic physics model could be appreciated in the original, especially in the low-gravity environment of alien starships.

Marathon's sequels got realistic, literally immersive liquids at a time when the best rival titles could offer is a splash sound effect. Water, lava and slime rose and fell rhythmically, controlled by the same sine wave generator that powered the Marathon's dynamic, per-surface lighting.

Liquids

The Marathon 2 engine added oscillating liquids

The trouble was, the Mac OS imposed a performance penalty that didn't hinder DOS-running PCs. That's why Marathon debuted with more HUD than viewscreen, leaving the player peering into a window. You could play full-screen, but it was slow and you were left HUD-less. Fortunately, Marathon 2, with an engine tuned specifically for the then-new PowerPC processors, was able to open this out into a full-screen vista the following year.

Still, even peering into a 320 x 240 window within the bigger HUD meant that objects didn't blur into a pixellated mess the way they often did in Doom, and while Marathon's gameplay was nominally of the same 'open door, kill monsters, find key, open next door' element, Bungie spruced it up with a proper storyline that evolved as you played the game.

Marathon: the Pfhor

Pfhor what we are about to receive...

Don't get me wrong: the events weren't shaped by your actions. The story didn't veer off in a different direction because you took too long to complete a certain level. But in an era when a typical game's storyline amounted to a couple of lines on the back of the box or the manual, Marathon was a tale that became more convoluted - and not the one you through it was at the start - as you played.

Marathon's mechanism for conveying events beyond the player's immediate vicinity were the ship's computer terminals. Tapping into the half-dozen or so in each level revealed not only mission details, but engendered a real sense that you were not necessarily at the centre of the action.

Marathon terminal: Durandal spills the beans
Terminal 2

Terminal madness: Durandal's bid for freedom revealed

The rape of the colony ship was taking place at many, many locations. Worse, it was being orchestrated by one of the vessel's own on-board AIs.

Poor Durandal. With an IQ in advance of any organic entity on the ship, he was left… operating the ship's doors and airlocks. No wonder he rebelled.

Colony ship for sale

But what a plan for freedom. Lure an empire of slavers, the Pfhor, to the Earth ship in the knowledge they will bring with them members of a cybernetic servitor race, the S'pht, who alone possess the ability to free you from your mainframe shackles. In return, you must release them from their servitude. The only way to do that: defeat the race that brought them here. Which is where the player comes in…

Monsters

Here be monsters

You, the UESC Marathon security chief, first commanded to fight off the invaders by one of the two other AIs, Leela, a task that initially sees you beaming from level to level within the vast starship seeking bigger, better weapons.

And ammunition. No colossal magazines here, but, at best, 32-shot clips that could be emptied in seconds during a pitiless firefight leaving you vulnerable which you slapped in a new one. Combat required a tactical awareness of how you could use the environment to your advantage. Where were the best defensive positions to fall back to? Where is the nearest shield regeneration station.

Steps

Step up to the plate

There were no medpacks scattered around, and when games could only be saved at specific computer terminals, you couldn't always afford to go in all guns blazing.

The need to conserve ammunition and play it cautious differentiated Marathon from Doom's blast-away frag-fest. So did the light-relief NPCs: the BoBs - guys Born on Board the colony ship, some converted into living bombs by the Pfhor.

Panicking canon fodder in the first game, the BoBs would gain weaponry and an attitude in the sequel. Shoot too many of them and they'd start shooting back...

Eerie lighting

Glow forth

The mission parameters were basic, with circuit boards and other doohickeys standing in for Doom's colour keys, and while Bungie threw in a hard vacuum level - which also introduced the alien Hunters, prototypes of the armoured beasties known to all Halo players - it was the only one. Still, the levels set on the Phfor fleet - shades of Truth and Reconcilliation almost a decade ahead - with their dark areas and eerily glowing slime made for incredibly atmospheric gameplay.

The Marathon trilogy - Marathon, Marathon 2: Durandal and Marathon Infinity - remain among the best lit games of the mid-1990s. Today, with its aged 8-bit textures replaced by HD redraws courtesy of the long-running Aleph One project, it's every bit as good as it was. Only the engine limitations long since overcome - it uses sprites for characters and kit, not 3D models; there are no slopes, Bezier curves or bump maps; the player can't jump or duck; there are be only two textures per wall surface - show its age, but its gameplay and engaging storyline remain as fresh as ever. ®

Fire!

Fire in the hole

The Marathon series was open sourced at the turn of the century. Since then the Aleph One have coded it for graphics cards and modern operating systems, including Mac OS X, Linux and Windows. It is also available for the iPad and iPhone.

Developer Bungie
Publisher Bungie
Release Date December 1994
Platform Mac

More Retro Games

Return to Castle
Wolfenstein
Head Over Heels Ten... 8-bit classics Carmageddon System Shock