By the time the '90s hit their midpoint, I had become hopelessly immersed in console role-playing games. In fact, the likes of Final Fantasy VI, Secret of Mana, and Illusion of Gaia had wrenched me back from the precipice of abandoning video games altogether as a frivolous, shallow pursuit.
As such, the budding first-person shooter genre — or rather, the "DOOM clone" as we called it back then — held little interest for me. I made an exception for Star Wars: Dark Forces, because as an aging Gen X'er I fell neatly into LucasFilm's long-con trap as they built up the deprecated Star Wars brand in order to build hype for Episode One. After the Heir to the Empire trilogy and the Dark Empire comics, Dark Forces offered an intoxicating opportunity to immerse myself into a franchise I had loved a growing up. But that, I figured, was it. I liked Dark Forces because it was Star Wars, not because it was about shooting Stormtroopers.
But Marathon caught me by surprise. The glimpses I saw of the first game looked far more intricate — more intellectual, even — than DOOM and Dark Forces. And the free demo I played of the sequel, Marathon 2: Durandal... well, it absolutely blew me away. It made a powerful impression, enough that Durandal has become one of my comfort food games despite the fact that the FPS genre has long since left Bungie's classic shooter behind in nearly every respect.
Marathon 2 worked on two levels. One, the technology! I couldn't believe how blazingly fast the game moved on my computer, a rather humble Macintosh Performa made in the bad old days when Apple charged way too much for machines whose performance was deliberately crippled (as opposed to now, when they charge slightly too much for same). Despite being an overpriced piece of crap, my Performa could still run Durandal at an impressive (at the time) resolution and buttery-smooth frame rate. Sure, I had to lower the sound quality, but Bungie offered me a great-looking shooter at a time when iD was still trying to figure out how to get the original DOOM on Mac.
Although Marathon's graphics were drawn with that slightly ugly style so common to Mac games of the era — in a higher resolution and with more color depth than comparable PC games, but always kind of weird and amateurish at the same time — its world was far more visually interesting than other shooters of the era. Even though it was a violent sci-fi shooter, Durandal didn't rely on a drab or muted color palette. Bungie varied up its designs to speak to different settings: The dull stone of an ancient fortress, the eye-searing secondary tones of a biomechanical alien cruiser, the rich red of a forgotten race's outpost.
And while it ran on the same style of "2.5D" tech as other shooters of the time, it never suffered from the cramped feeling so common to its contemporaries. Even as you slogged through narrow corridors and twisty passages, you always knew a wide vista was around the corner. The long lines of sight meant you could slug it out with bad guys at a great distance, get your bearings more easily, see into rooms you needed to reach later in the game. There was little of the "hug the wall and hit the action key" school of FPS progression in Marathon; instead, its levels consisted of large, sprawling affairs that required players to figure out their mechanisms while also wading through a sea of foes.
Durandal varied its objectives and level types; sometimes the game would feel exploratory, as you cast about in search of some alien relic or clue on an abandoned world, while other stages focused strictly on survival and combat. There was a reason for this variety, if you paid attention; all those computer terminals you had to log onto in order to advance to the next stage would also tell a pretty interesting story to anyone who didn't just skip past the text.
That was the other level on which Durandal worked. The entire story had the player working as the agent (some might say "dupe") of a hyper-conniving artificial intelligence named Durandal as he waged war against his rival AI Tycho and Tycho's allies, the alien collective known as the Pfhor. Not unlike the Covenant of Halo — a game directly descended from Marathon — the Pfhor consisted of multiple races allied together for galactic domination. The first game saw the player liberating one of the Phfor's client races (the S'pht) from cybernetic slavery, and these freed aliens banded together with Durandal to find clues to the whereabouts of and ultimately recall their one free tribe, who had long ago abandoned their war-torn homeworld and alone could fight off the oppressive Pfhor.
Shades of 2112, perhaps, but the plot took some interesting turns. Midway through the game, Durandal finds himself losing the war against the Pfhor, crashes to the surface of a planet, and forces the player to destroy his computer core. Ultimately, though, it turns out this was all just a feint in order to trick the S'pht's ancient, balance-obsessed supercomputer into summoning the lost tribe of the S'pht and turn the tide of the war against the Pfhor.
It was an awful lot of story to convey through text terminals, and the plot left many unanswered questions. Was the protagonist truly meant to have been the last, unaccounted for cyborg war machine from the Mars rebellion? Was human resistance leader Robert Blake just an electronic hallucination Durandal inflicted on the hero while hitching a ride in his wetware? But the ambiguity of the plot accounted for much of its appeal; half the fun of being a Marathon fan in the '90s was getting together with other fans on forums and bulletin boards to debate the fine points. It helped, too, that Bungie was a smaller studio that shared a much closer relationship with its community back in the day, playing to its fans' obsessions and even acknowledging its most dedicated devotees within the games.
As a sequel, Durandal greatly improved on its predecessor. The first Marathon had been something of a revolution, especially for shooter-starved Mac owners, but the sequel brought both technical and design improvements. The graphics looked better, moved faster, and didn't have to be played in windowed mode. The level designs were far smarter and more diverse, with fewer dead ends and unclear objectives. The first game's most uninteresting foes vanished to be replaced by stronger opponents and more creative variants on the most effective enemies. The weapons were more fun to use, with most equipment either offering an alternate fire mode (such as the charged-up fusion gun that found a descendent in Halo's plasma pistol) or else allowing for dual-wielding. Ally characters became far more helpful in combat, serving less as helpless targets and more as equal participants in battle. Marathon was fast, twitchy, and fun, yet it also invited a more considered approach as well.
Of course, Durandal feels terribly dated by today's standards. Even putting aside the matter of technology, it represents a window into the way shooters used to work before Half-Life, Halo, and Call of Duty changed everything. Your health doesn't regenerate; you need to find charging stations to juice up. Likewise, the only checkpoints come in the form of save buffers that record your current health, ammo, and oxygen level. Enemies are hopelessly stupid, too, generally using the "run straight at the player" approach to combat — though their idiocy can work in your favor, as you can create skirmishes and lead your foes into taking one another out by tricking them into fighting one another.
Happily, the spirit of Durandal lives on in Destiny, Bungie's latest shooter. If Destiny feels like a newer, more ambitious take on Halo, Halo in turn was on many levels an attempt to modernize Marathon. Many elements that the new game seems to borrow from the Halo series in turn have their roots in Marathon. Game design and technology weren't ready for everything Bungie tried to accomplish in the Marathon series, including cooperative play, and while it's definitely not just the same thing reprised for a new audience, the Destiny beta nevertheless works for me on the same level that Marathon did.
That being said, sometimes it's nice just to revisit old favorites and take comfort in the way things used to be. Durandal is a relic of the past, but it's my past, and playing it still takes me back to the wonder I felt when I first played it all those years ago.