‘Marathon’ trilogy retrospective
By Adam Tatelman, Arts Editor
Following the release of Destiny: Rise of Iron, the expansion pack to the popular co-op sci-fi shooter, it is fitting to take a look back at the surreal FPS series that catapulted then-unknown developer Bungie Studios to mainstream fame, Marathon.
Marathon was one of the only successful franchises exclusive to the Mac computer in the 1990s, back when the FPS genre was first popularized by Windows PC exclusives like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. Believe it or not, the Mac vs. PC debate was every bit as cringe worthy as the Xbox vs. PlayStation argument of today, and Marathon was the biggest gun Mac had in the fight.
Marathon was also the first ever FPS to feature dual-wielding, and one of the first to have weapons with multiple fire settings. This makes the combat into a fast-paced rock-paper-scissors game where certain weapons are most effective against different enemy types, forcing the player to conserve ammo for emergencies and strategize on the fly. There are also sections which take place underwater or in zero gravity, something no competing shooter had yet considered.
If Marathon’s design is forward-thinking, then the storytelling is lightyears ahead of the competition. The U.E.S.C. Marathon, the space vessel your character serves on, has been attacked by the Pfhor, a race of alien slavers. Seems standard. But the real drama comes from Leela, Durandal and Tycho—the three A.I. programs who control the ship. Leela is your only true ally in this fight. Durandal, having become self-aware, plots to take advantage of the situation. Tycho, now corrupted by a Pfhor A.I., has turned against you.
Beyond this, the story is told through your correspondences with the A.I.s through computer terminals. You can simply choose to run the gauntlet and complete your objectives, but there is a rich, detailed space opera happening behind the scenes, and it is well worth the player’s interest. Making the story complex, accessible but not in-your-face, is a novel idea—one which has rarely been imitated in 20 years of game design since.
Marathon 2: Durandal sees the megalomaniacal A.I. pressgang you into serving his ambition on an ancient alien planet. Marathon: Infinity is… complicated. Supposedly, the player travels through alternate realities Quantum Leap style, mending corrupted versions of events from the first two games in an attempt to stop an eldritch abomination from eating all of existence. More likely, it was a poorly justified hodgepodge of production notes that vaguely resembles a story, since Durandal was actually intended to conclude the series.
The level design will make or break the game for most. Being a shadowy corridor crawl like Doom or Duke Nukem 3D, the layout is extremely complex, often requiring the player to throw various obscure hidden switches to proceed through the levels. The feeling of being lost and powerless certainly works in the context of a story where everyone is manipulating you, but it can get extremely grating, especially given the lack of a catchy soundtrack in most levels.
Fans of Larry Niven or Philip K. Dick will enjoy these games for their plot; Destiny and Halo fans will want to unearth them to experience a lost era in FPS history. For those undaunted by taking on the role of a rat in a maze, all three Marathon titles are available as freeware at alephone.lhowon.org, along with various fan-made scenarios, such as the horror-themed RED, and the pseudo-sequels Eternal, Phoenix, and Rubicon X.