Many years ago, Bungie created a seminal FPS starring a heroic Mjolnir Cyborg who had to defend humanity from a ravening alien hegemony. Wielding powerful rechargable armour, assault rifles and scoped pistols, he was a one-man army; capable of ultilising different weapons and tactics against the extraterrestrial menace on massive, sprawling maps. At his side was a rampant AI that provided him with mission objectives and guidance... and throughout the ensuing trilogy, players discovered a terrifying array of ancient technology left by a forerunner race that pre-dates the universe.
But we're not talking about Halo. We're talking about Marathon, which Bungie released on the Mac back in 1994. This trilogy not only provided the template for the Halo franchise, but delivered a gaming experience that was literally years ahead of its time.
Before we get stuck into exactly why Marathon was so revolutionary, it's worth noting that you don't have to take my word for anything you're about to read. Bungie officially classified the trilogy as open source, and the Aleph One project hosts the entire series as free downloads with Windows compatibility and high definition texture packs. Download it here, and while you're waiting, it's time we gave Bungie's epic space opera the credit it deserves.
In 1994, the only other major FPS contender was Doom II, the incremental (if excellent) sequel to id Software's classic shooter. Marathon, however, was leagues ahead in terms of game mechanics. The trilogy was one of the first franchises to implement mouselook, letting players actually look up as well as left and right. Many of the weapons had alternate fire modes such as rifle grenades or dual wielding. A motion tracker radar was literally the first of its kind, and allowed us to see incoming threats before they reared around a corner. And it even had a flamethrower.
Low-gravity and zero-oxygen environments also played a huge part in the campaign, which was set onboard the titular colony ship Marathon after the ship's 'dumb' AI, Durandal, suddenly became self-aware and completely dissatisfied with its remit of simply opening and closing doors. The levels provided a huge variety of tight spaces and enormous arenas - and even featured unarmed civilians that could change the outcome of the story if you failed to save them. Marathon: Durandal and Marathon Infinity upped the ante yet further with bigger arrays of weaponry and multiplayer that would forever change the face of FPS games.
Kill The Man With The Ball turned into Oddball. 8-player team deathmatches were the norm straight out of the box, not to mention riotous cooperative shenanigans over LAN. People tend to think of Halo and Quake when it comes to genre-defining games, but Marathon was arguably more important than any of them.
The selection of enemies was also deeply impressive. As well as an array of alien troopers and massive war machines, we were even confronted with impostor colonists who blended into crowds and exploded when approached. Working out which humans were real and which were horrifying alien terror weapons was a fun puzzle in and of itself, and required players to listen closely to what they had to say. Humans who yelled out about the need to reload, for example, were fake since they carried automatic weapons. We rarely see enemies this interesting in 2011, let alone in games from the early nineties.
But the most impressive part of the Marathon Trilogy was its storyline. Though the plot was delivered through a selection of text-based terminals, it presents empirically one of the most thought-provoking narratives to have ever featured in a videogame. It championed the idea of "rampancy" and the notion that AIs could become self-aware and tear themselves apart through anger and jealousy. Durandal, your erstwhile nemesis, eventually became a hero, a saviour to a cyborg race and a God beyond the collapse of the universe. Throughout the three games, players discovered an intricate canon that's steeped in Egyptian legends, double bluffs and chaos theory. Rather than just laying out the story through cutscenes, players were encouraged to read between the lines and research advanced topics for themselves - making the experience truly rewarding as a thought experiment as well as a solid shooter. Many terminals contained computer code that formed hidden images or programs when copied and pasted into the console, and secret messages that completely change the face of what you believe to be true.
Marathon Infinity even twisted what could have been a dull map pack into a dimension-jumping odyssey of discovery, sending players Quantum Leap-style through myriad non linear alternate realities on the trail of the multidimensional W’rkncacnter. Working out whether the storyline can be taken at face value is still a fierce subject of contention to this day, especially when the first letter of each chapter spells out D.R.E.A.M.S. Aye Mak Sicur.
You should definitely browse over to the Marathon Story Page, where learned fans still debate the deep hidden symbolism, numerology and significance behind every single line of text. You can easily lose days to its labyrinthine lore - and believe me, it's time well spent.
People will remember Halo for its contributions to the FPS genre... but Bungie's franchise is built on the epic legacy of a trilogy that dared to dream beyond the confines of limited technology and traditional storytelling. Let us never forget Marathon. Frog blast the vent core!