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Point & Counterpoint 4: Marathon

This is the fourth in a series of ‘dueling cblog editorials’ I will be doing with CaffeinePowered.
You can check out his opinion on today’s topic HERE.

Previous editions:
Point & Counterpoint 3: Earthbound vs. Chrono Trigger
Chrono Trigger

Point & Counterpoint 2: Originals vs. Remakes

Point & Counterpoint 1: Video Game Violence
Violence Doesn’t Affect Gamers
Violence Affects Gamers

When people think of revolutionary FPSs of the past, typically the ones that immediately come to mind are Wolfenstein, Quake, and Doom. While all great games in their own right, many PC gamers sadly missed out on an incredible trilogy: Marathon. Made by Bungie (Pre-Microsoft sucking away their soul), the Marathon trilogy stands even today as a shining example of the RIGHT way to do an FPS. Today, I’ll be discussing the Marathon series and why I believe that they are the best FPS of the early

Today’s Topic: Doom vs. Marathon

Yes, that’s right. I’m a huge Bungie fanboy, I love Marathon, and I detest Halo. Try and make it through the whole thing, and find out just why I love Marathon so much.

The Story

One of the best things about Marathon was that it was the first FPS to really have a true story. Sure, Wolfenstein and Doom theoretically had stories, but they weren’t much beyond “You’re a good guy. Kill Nazis.” Or “You’re on Mars. Kill demons.” The Marathon trilogy contained an epic story with much more depth than any game in the genre available at the time. For those who aren’t familiar (I’ll try to avoid spoilers), the trilogy revolves around three ship AI’s (Tycho, Durandal, and Leela) and their struggle for dominance.

Remember how everyone was praising the original Metroid Prime for being so amazing and innovative because it told a story mostly by using scan data and without having voiceovers, narration, or other characters? Well, Marathon did it first. The entirety of the game’s story was revealed through computer terminals scattered around the levels. Some you had to view to advance, but others were hidden in out of the way locations, rewarding the adventurous gamer for exploring out of the way locations. And it was a reward worth pursuing; as I’ve mentioned before, the story is fascinating and definitely worth seeking out (especially now if you’re a Halo player and haven’t played the Marathon games before; it provides quite a lot of backstory. Also check out Pathways into Darkness, Bungie’s first shooter, that serves as a kind of prequel to Marathon and gives you even more background about Marathon and Halo.) While other FPSs of the time had fairly generic and shallow stories, the Marathon games were the first time an RPG worthy story had been successfully inserted into the FPS genre.

Forge and Anvil

Maybe you’ve heard lately how excited Halo 3 players are because the game has come with Forge, a tool that lets you make your own maps (and by make your own maps I mean place barrels around an already existing map). What most of those players don’t know is that Bungie released the original Forge back with Marathon Infinity, along with a sister program called Anvil. Unlike today’s Forge, the Marathon Forge was a full on, complete mapmaking program, and was the program that Bungie themselves used to design all of the levels in the game. No gimpy barrel placing here; you could build complete levels from scratch, and I spent many hours as a 5th-6th grader sitting around making maps to trade with my friends.

While incredibly cool in its own right, other games of the time had mapmaking tools available as well (although to my knowledge none of them were the same ones the developer used). However, Bungie took it a step further and released Anvil, a tool that allowed you to entirely change the physics, graphics, and textures of the game with relative ease (especially compared to other tools of the time). Want to make a shotgun that shoots grenades? Simple, open up the existing shotgun weapon and change the variables from the pulldown menu. Now want to change the way that gun looks? Easy; import your own bitmaps and you’re good to go. Want to stick in your own music? Simple, just import it with Anvil. While not the first programs available to do things like this, they were certainly the easiest to use at the time. A group called the Marathon Map Maker’s guild was particularly well known in the Marathon community for using Forge and Anvil to create total conversions, and a number of complete games exist using the Marathon engine. Some of the more well known ones are listed here. My personal favorite is Los Disneys because of its sheer ridiculousness, but all of them were incredibly well done.

The Monsters and the BOBs

Another aspect of the Marathon games that I really enjoyed was the enemy design. I think Bungie did a particularly good job of coming up with unique aliens/monsters for the game beyond the generic designs seen in the past.

The Pfhor were the ones you encountered most often, with a variety of types seen ranging from your standard fighter (who fights with a staff) to special units called Enforcers that, should you successfully kill one, will drop a long range flamethrower that you can use until you run out of ammo.

The S’pht were another intriguing race, as they were basically cyborgs with human brains that were able to shoot electrical bolts at you (and they had a neat dying animation & sound). More exciting than the S’pht themselves however were the F’lickta (what the above picture is) – grotesque monsters that typically live in sewers that have the honorable distinction of being the first enemy in FPS history to attack by flinging toxic feces at you.

And finally, we had the BOBs.

(How the BOB evolved through the trilogy)

The only other human characters in the game, the BOBs (which stands for Born on Board) started in the first Marathon game as crew members stranded on the ship. In Marathon 2, they became a ragtag security force, and by Marathon Infinity they had special vacuum suits and fusion pistols. While the story suggested that you were supposed to help the BOBs, it was far more fun to kill them. In particular, the screams they made when you cooked them with the flamethrower were legendary.

Marathon Infinity also introduced the infected BOB, BOBs who had been captured by the Pfhor, implanted with bombs, and turned into unwilling weapons. The way you could tell an infected BOB from a regular BOB was from the bizarre things they would shout out, with the most famous being “frog blast the vent core” which became a huge meme within the Marathon community and lived on to become a recurring joke in Oni and even other non-Bungie games like Tron.

Overall, the “cast” of the Marathon games from the AIs to the enemies was incredibly well done with pretty much everything in the game having a detailed back story and/or information that you could discover throughout the terminals.

The Opening Music to Marathon 2 and Marathon Infinity

They’re badass. Enough said.

The Multiplayer

Having developed a full multiplayer game already (Minotaur, back in 1992), the multiplayer available with Marathon was incredibly well done. Aside from having the standard deathmatch and co-op, Bungie also introduced a number of new multiplayer game types, many which are still used today in other products. First was “Kill the man with the Ball”, a game type where the goal was to find a skull hidden in the level and carry it for as long as possible. While holding the skull, you couldn’t use any of your weapons, so it became a game of avoidance as everyone else tried to gun you down and steal the skull from you. Also included was a twisted version of Tag, where being killed by whoever is “it” made you the new “it”, and the person who was “it” the least was the winner. Finally, my favorite multiplayer type was king of the hill. Each map had a “hill” marked out, typically in the center of the map, and whoever stood on it the longest won. Doom may have had multiplayer first, but the new innovative game modes developed by Bungie for Marathon kept the action from ever getting stale.

Underappreciated No More?

A problem I find when I write these columns is that it’s really hard to capture a lot of the subtleties of games in writing, and since many people never played the Marathon games (or those who tried vomited everywhere because Microsoft did a terrible job with the XBLA version) it’s a series that’s long been ignored and unnoticed despite the innovations it made in the genre. (Remember, if it wasn’t for Marathon, there wouldn’t be a Halo.) Luckily, since those who DID play Marathon loved it so much, fan work has continued on until this day, and thanks to Bungie you can play the whole Marathon trilogy with updated graphics for free! (Remember how I said remakes can be better than the originals? If not, go back and read Point & Counterpoint 2.)

Right before Bungie was gobbled up by Microsoft, they released the source code to Marathon 2. The fans took it, modified it to add Open GL support, strengthened the game engine, and distributed it so that everyone can enjoy all three of the Marathon games. If you’ve never played the Marathon games before, I DEMAND that you stop what you’re doing and go get them right now.

(To install, follow the instructions on the top section of the website. They’re short and simple, but if you don’t read them you won’t be able to figure out how to play it.)


The Marathon Comic


Impact on the Industry

At the time, Marathon was a huge seller for the Mac, and the success of the series changed the FPS world forever. First and foremost, Halo wouldn’t exist today if it wasn’t for Marathon. But aside from that, Marathon showed that an FPS could have a deep and riveting story, and after its release the simple-plot FPS almost completely disappeared. Additionally, Forge and Anvil made level builders a must have, and many companies started to bundle them with games after seeing all the amazing maps and conversions the Marathon community created. Plus, Bungie’s fresh take on multiplayer inspired game developers to make multiplayer something more than just plain old deathmatch. Finally, I didn't mention this earlier because it didn't deserve it's own section, but Marathon was the first FPS with mouselook and alternative fire for weapons. WHERE WOULD WE BE WITHOUT MOUSELOOK!?

Marathon revolutionized the genre and presented a nice, shiny FPS package that was unrivaled by any other game of the time. Unfortunately, because they got their start as a Mac-only developer, many PC users missed out on the whole Marathon experience (eventually Marathon 2 and Marathon Infinity came to the PC, but they were ported pretty late). Had everyone gotten the chance to play this game when it was originally released, there would be no dispute about Marathon reigning supreme over the FPSs of the early 90s.
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About Aeroxone of us since 2:41 PM on 12.14.2006

Come join us on IRC!

I'm 23, and have been playing games since I was about 2 or 3 with the super old computer my dad got to bring home from working with the government. I got my NES when I was 5.

I love old school SNES RPGs, and I play pretty much anything now except sports games. I'll play FPSs, but typically not on consoles.

I currently own:
DS Lite

I have previously owned:
A Mac

Xbox LIVE:Aerox47
Mii code:4266-0870-0999-6381


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