1994 was a good year for first-person shooters. The Doom series was well into its prime, and the groundbreaking System Shock would release in the fall of that same year. Amidst the success of these games, there was one game developer gearing up to release their very own first-person shooter. That game developer was Bungie. Long before their name would become synonymous with the commercially prolific and critically acclaimed Halo franchise, Bungie released Marathon in December of 1994 for the Apple Macintosh followed by Marathon 2: Durandal (1995) and Marathon Infinity (1996). Even if you have never heard of or played Marathon before, chances are you have probably encountered aspects of it if you’ve played any of the Halo games. The Marathon logo can be used as a decorative emblem in multiplayer, and Halo 3‘s Security Armor is made to resemble the armor worn by Marathon’s protagonist. Halo and Marathon share a lot of thematic similarities as well, such as being set in space, super soldier protagonists, and hostile alien races.
If Doom is the fast-paced first-person shooter on one end of a spectrum, and System Shock is the narrative-driven first-person shooter on the other, then Marathon is the middleman of that spectrum. Marathon’s position on this spectrum does not necessarily mean it’s a run-of-the-mill FPS bereft of any uniqueness, quite the contrary. The game possesses a good balance of plot and action, preventing it from being a total knock-off of Doom or System Shock.
The first Marathon takes place in the year 2794; its title is derived from the name of the ship that the game is set, the UESC (Unified Earth Space Council) Marathon. The Marathon is a massive colony ship converted from Deimos, one of Mars’ moons. All of the Marathon’s functions are controlled by three AIs: Leela, Durandal, and Tycho. You play as a nameless security officer who is brought on board the Marathon by Leela shortly after it is attacked by alien slavers called the Pfhor (pronounced “four”). The Security Officer must navigate the Marathon’s dark hallways, and he must shoot up Pfhor infantry in order to survive. Moreover, he must follow the orders of the ship’s AIs via terminals to repel their invasion. Marathon does a fantastic job at building tension with its dark, claustrophobic atmosphere, and the music complements its mood perfectly.
Marathon 2: Durandal picks up 17 years after the first game. The sequel is set on Lh’owon, the homeworld of the S’pht (pronounced “S’fit”), one of Pfhor’s slave races. The Security Officer is sent to Lh’owon by Durandal to find a lost S’pht clan to aid in the battle against the Pfhor. A big alteration between Marathon and its sequel aside from its ameliorated graphics is the inclusion of bigger environments. Combat in Marathon 2 is bigger as well, with the Security Officer being pitted against hordes of enemies, sometimes multiple hordes at once. In addition, Marathon 2 was the only game in the trilogy to see a console release; it was ported to the Xbox Live Arcade in 2007 under the name Marathon: Durandal. My gripe with Marathon 2 is its total lack of music which is instead replaced with ambient sounds. I would sometimes find myself bored out of my mind when I got lost because there was nothing to listen to aside from the banal sound of wind blowing.
The plot of the third and final Marathon game, Marathon Infinity, is so bizarre and surreal that I will not even bother making the attempt to explain it. Infinity takes the DC Comics and Marvel Comics approach to storytelling by introducing the idea of alternate realities. Firstly, Infinity starts out as if nothing in Marathon 2 ever transpired. The Security Officer is contacted by Durandal who informs him of a new threat festering in Lh’owon’s sun. From that point on the Security Officer traverses through different realities trying to uncover answers about himself and the threat in Lh’owon’s sun. The big highlight of Infinity is its attempt to develop the Security Officer as a character, a move that was not done often for first-person shooter protagonists at the time.
Gameplay in the Marathon Trilogy parallels Doom more so than System Shock. You must explore levels, pull switches, and kill enemies to progress; however, unlike Doom, some weapons can be dual wielded, and some of them have an alternate fire. On top of that, you can look up and down to allow for more consistent aiming. Another differentiating aspect of Marathon from Doom is that levels require you to fulfill a specific objective like installing data chips or gathering intel from terminals. Environment plays a huge role in Marathon’s gameplay as well. Some levels may have you swimming through large bodies of water for extended periods of time, or they may have you exploring the vacuum of space where gravity is significantly reduced. Ultimately, all of these environmental conditions affect the tide of combat and your character’s movement.
Terminals are the key aspect of the Marathon Trilogy’s gameplay. They are basically used to communicate with other characters, mostly AIs. The AI’s use terminals to give you an objective in a level, then once that objective is completed you must use a terminal once more to be extracted to the next level. Terminals are also the only means of learning the intricate plot of each Marathon. Since they are passive objects, players are free to quickly skip through their text to get right down to the level objective. This prevents lengthy story expositions from disrupting the pace of the game’s action.
Multiplayer is another big part of the Marathon Trilogy. Players can either duke it out online or play the campaign mode cooperatively. Marathon’s frantic multiplayer includes game modes like Every Man for Himself (Deathmatch), King of the Hill, and Kill the Man with the Ball. The latter would be the inspiration for Oddball in Halo’s multiplayer.
The Marathon Trilogy may not have revolutionized first-person shooter genre the same way Doom or System Shock did, but it managed to deliver material that was fresh and fun. Most importantly, it set the foundation for Halo; without it, the Halo series may not be where it is today. I personally believe that Bungie is very grateful to how far the Marathon games got them. They seem to make it a habit to refer to Marathon in their games no matter how big or small those references might be. Halo, as I mentioned before, bears the brunt of these references, but even Destiny, Bungie’s newest IP, contains its fair share of Marathon references too. It just goes to show that no matter how far a game developer moves up in the industry, they must never forget their roots. I strongly recommend checking out the Marathon games; the entire trilogy can be downloaded for free at Aleph One – Marathon Open Source for Windows and Mac users.
Check out some gameplay of the first Marathon on the Macintosh below to see if the series interests you. YouTube video uploaded by PlayingWithHistory.
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