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Overview

Originally released by Bungie Software between the years of 1994 and 1996 (and also rereleased as a compilation in 1997), the Marathon franchise of video games, often collectively referred to as the Marathon Trilogy, is a series of science fiction first-person shooters developed first and foremost for the Macintosh. It consists of three primary releases, which are, in chronological and narrative order, Marathon, Marathon 2: Durandal, and Marathon Infinity. The storyline of the trilogy focuses on the actions of a nameless security officer who, over the course of the series' three titles, must not only deal with the machinations of a hostile alien slaver race, but also contend with the whims of a capricious rogue A.I. and the threat of an ancient chaotic entity known as the W'rkncacnter. Its gameplay is in many respects comparable to that of other contemporary FPS games of its day such as the Doom series, although it was also notable for incorporating objective-based gameplay and emphasizing narrative to a greater extent than was common in shooters at the time.

Marathon is often thought to have ties to Bungie's later Halo universe due to a number of allusions to Marathon contained within the Halo games, such as the frequent appearance of the Marathon logo and borrowed concepts such as rampancy. For its part, however, Bungie has never expressly confirmed the existence of any direct narrative continuity between the two properties. The Marathon Trilogy is also presumed by many to take place within the same universe as Bungie's earlier Pathways into Darkness due to the existence of the Jjaro within the fiction of both.

Plot

Marathon

Marathon takes place in the year 2794, and is set primarily aboard the titular UESC Marathon, a space station situated near a human colony in the Tau Ceti system. The player character is identified as a security officer assigned to the colony, and the main action of its story picks up moments after an unexpected attack by an alien race known as the Pfhor. Boarding the Marathon just moments after the Pfhor's initial assault, the security officer is soon contacted by Leela, one of the ship's three A.I.s, who endeavors over the course of the game to aid him in fending off the Pfhor invasion. She informs him that the station's other two A.I.s will be of no help in this regard, as Tycho was disabled in the initial assault, while Durandal has begun to display signs of rampancy, and as a result shows little to no concern for the plight of Tau Ceti's colonists. After making some progress against the Pfhor with Leela's help, the player is briefly abducted via teleporter by the mentally unstable Durandal, who seems to have no objective other than to toy with him.

Leela eventually rescues the security officer from Durandal's clutches, but by this time she is certain she will be taken offline by the S'pht, who have been attempting to compromise her since the attacks began. Just prior to going offline, she informs Durandal of her plans to defeat the Pfhor, and Durandal himself takes over the task of directing the player from this point, as helping the security officer repel the attack will further his own goal of leaving the Marathon. The turning point in the battle comes when Durandal teleports the player onto the Pfhor attack vessel, where he destroys a cyborg creation responsible for controlling the S'pht. No longer slaves to the Pfhor, the S'pht immediately turn on them, and the Pfhor are quickly forced to surrender in the face of this unexpected development. In the midst of the chaos, Durandal installs himself aboard the Pfhor ship Sfiera, and he informs the player of his intention to explore the galaxy with the S'pht's help.

Marathon 2

Awakened abruptly seventeen years after the events of Marathon, the security officer learns that he and many other colonists from Tau Ceti were abducted by Durandal and placed in stasis aboard the Sfiera immediately following the Pfhor's surrender on the Marathon. In the interim period, Durandal and the S'pht have been searching for the lost S'pht homeworld of Lh'owon, and upon finding it their human passengers are resuscitated in order to explore the planet's surface. Through communications with the player it becomes evident that Durandal believes Lh'owon to be the resting place of an ancient technology that holds the key to defeating the Pfhor. After searching several sites on Lh'owon for evidence of the fate of the ancient S'pht and any secrets they may have possessed, the player character is suddenly called back to the Sfiera after the arrival of the Pfhor's Battle Group Seven, accompanied by Tycho, who has been repurposed to serve the Pfhor.

Despite the humans' best efforts to defend the ship, the Sfiera is eventually overwhelmed by Battle Group Seven, and Durandal orders the security officer to destroy his logic centers in order to prevent his capture. While successful in destroying the A.I.'s logic cores, the player character himself is unable to escape Tycho, and spends several weeks in captivity before being rescued by the remnants of the human colonists led by Robert Blake. With the humans fighting a losing battle, the security officer continues to search for the lost technology Durandal spoke of, eventually activating an ancient and cryptic A.I. known as Thoth. Thoth summons the eleventh S'pht clan, the highly advanced S'pht'Kr, who immediately attack the Pfhor responsible for enslaving their brethren. Around the same time, Durandal reemerges unexpectedly after forcing Tycho's ship into one of the moons of Lh'owon. Realizing their defeat, the enraged Pfhor activate the trih xeem device, causing Lh'owon's sun to go into early nova and forcing both sides to leave the system.

Marathon Infinity

The meaning of many events within Marathon Infinity's campaign, entitled "Blood Tides of Lh'owon," are open to interpretation, however it is clear that the very fabric of the universe has become threatened by the trih xeem device employed by the Pfhor in Marathon 2. Evidently, Lh'owon's sun acted as a prison for a being of pure chaos called the W''rkncacnter, and by activating the trih xeem the Pfhor unwittingly set it free. As the game begins, the normally sardonic Durandal is uncharacteristically shaken by the revelation of the W'rkncacnter's existence, and seems to fear the growing chaos that approaches. Exactly what happens after this point is a matter of some speculation, but it is clear that the player is being made to experience the previous game's battle for Lh'owon from different vantage points, in some cases even aiding Tycho and the Pfhor while battling Durandal and his human captives.

How the player is able to experience these alternate realities is not entirely clear. Some theories point to the influence of the W'rkncacnter, others to possible Jjaro technology, and others still claim that these events are dreams rather than literal happenings. Whatever the truth of the matter may be, it can be inferred that the purpose of these excursions is to find a means to prevent the all-consuming chaos of the W'rkncacnter from engulfing the known universe. Central to this is an ancient Jjaro station that the player can travel to on multiple occasions, though only on the player's final trip can it actually be activated. This act seemingly contains the nigh-unstoppable W'rkncacnter, though the game's epilogue does not explicitly spell out what happens in the aftermath of this event, instead giving the player the liberty to interpret the full meaning of much of the game's narrative on their own.

Fan Interpretation

Marathon's story is told primarily through computer terminal messages, and some of the finer points of its plot are left intentionally vague, leading many players to speculate about details lying below the surface. These attempts to decipher Marathon's fiction take the form of everything from discussions of the game's main character and whether or not he is a cyborg, to interpretations of some of the more obtuse terminal messages. On September 19, 1995, the Marathon's Story site was born specifically to collect various fan theories and provide a formal venue for Marathon players to debate the series' fiction. Created and maintained by Hamish Sinclair, the Marathon's Story page eventually became a well-respected institution within the Marathon community, and new musings and discussions regarding Marathon's narrative still take place there more than fifteen years after the last Marathon game was released.

Gameplay

Single-Player

The basic gameplay and structure of Marathon's single-player scenarios is very similar to that of other early first-person shooters. The player progresses through a linear series of levels, gaining new weapons and fighting progressively tougher enemies along the way. In many situations the player may also be required to solve environmental challenges in order to progress, which might take the form of switch puzzles, platform traversal, and the like. Missions typically require certain objectives be completed before the player can progress, rather than simply finding a predetermined exit point. A player might, for instance, be tasked with killing certain enemies within the level before they can proceed, finding and retrieving a certain object or objects, or defending specified targets. These objectives are communicated to the player by way of in-game computer terminals, which also serve to convey the series' story, and once all objectives within a level are complete, the player can be teleported via terminal to the next level in the sequence. The final game, Marathon Infinity, changes the structure of the campaign slightly by allowing the player to jump ahead to later levels or travel back to earlier levels in the campaign at certain points, though the content of the missions themselves is very much consistent with earlier games.

Throughout the games, the player is required to monitor health and ammunition levels. While later games in the series introduced health pickups, vitality is primarily restored through preset health stations found within the environment, which can be used multiple times. The player's health is not displayed numerically, but rather as a single depleting health bar with different colors denoting how much vitality the player has. With one bar or less of vitality the player's existing health is shown in red; filling the gauge past the first bar will begin to change the bar from red to yellow, indicating a second charge, and gaining health in excess of two bars will gradually change the bar from yellow to purple, denoting a third and final level of health. Weapon ammunition is found scattered throughout the levels, and aside from the game's highest difficulty level, which gives the player unlimited carrying capacity, a finite amount can be carried for each type. Marathon also features a reload mechanic, and although it is not possible to manually reload, the remaining ammunition in the currently equipped weapon is displayed in the HUD at all times so that the player can avoid reloads at inopportune times.

The Marathon series also forces players on occasion to take into account their oxygen supply and environmental physics. In the first game, oxygen considerations are restricted to instances where the player is in a vacuum environment. When in these conditions, the oxygen meter slowly diminishes, eventually resulting in the player's death if it is not periodically replenished. Much like health, the oxygen gauge is restored either through fixed wall stations within a level or through oxygen tank pickups. From Marathon 2 onward, the player can also become fully submerged in liquid substances, which not only drains oxygen, but also in the case of hazardous liquids causes damage to the player. Marathon furthermore incorporates a physics engine which impacts several areas of play. The force of certain weapons, for instance, can be used to propel the player off of the ground, certain maps introduce altered gravity levels, and bypassing some obstacles requires the player to demonstrate a basic understanding of their avatar's rate of descent.

Another unique feature of the Marathon series is its motion sensor, which gives players the means to detect hostile and friendly targets outside of their visual range while also allowing them to ascertain their own detectability. Friendly targets on the motion sensor are visualized as green squares, while hostiles or unknowns are highlighted as red triangles; in multiplayer, network opponents are displayed as yellow squares. The player will appear as a green square at the center of the motion detector if their own movements render them detectable to motion sensor equipment. In some multiplayer modes, the motion sensor is also used to indicate the position of mode-specific targets such as "the guy with the ball" or the hill in King of the Hill mode. Within the campaign, though, it is used primarily for enemy detection purposes. Certain environments, such as the bowels of a Pfhor vessel, may inhibit the motion detector from functioning properly.

Multiplayer

Although the original Marathon shipped with only the ability to play deathmatch (called Every Man for Himself) and team deathmatch modes, the release of Marathon 2 greatly expanded the number of available modes. This includes the ability to play through the game's campaign cooperatively, which was a feature Bungie had meant to include in the original game, as well as new competitive modes like Kill the Man with the Ball, King of the Hill, and Tag. Each iteration of Marathon was released with several unique maps created specifically for these competitive multiplayer modes, and many details could be customized, such as player and team colors, death and suicide penalties, time and kill limits, and whether or not players have the ability to use the motion detector. Marathon multiplayer also supported in-game voice chat during multiplayer, a relatively uncommon feature when the game was introduced in 1994. It is still possible to play Marathon multiplayer relatively painlessly at present through the Aleph One source port and MaruisNet, a fan-made matchmaking server for Bungie's Myth series which was eventually expanded to include Marathon.

Games

Marathon

Marathon (1994)

Released in late 1994, Marathon received a significant amount of praise from the Macintosh gaming community upon its release, and according to Bungie its sales numbers ranked in the hundreds of thousands. It is frequently cited as one of the first FPS titles to include features such as dual-wielding, alternate firing modes, and multiplayer voice chat. While the success of Marathon paled in comparison to the runaway popularity of Doom, its closest contemporary, Marathon quickly built a devoted fanbase. Though the overall features and presentation would be expanded in later iterations, Marathon is notable for being the only game in the franchise to feature ambient background music, which was replaced by environmental sounds in later games.
Marathon 2

Marathon 2: Durandal (1995)

Advancements in the Marathon engine led to a large number of noticeable changes in Marathon 2, such as an expanded field of view, a greater emphasis on outdoor environments, and the incorporation of liquids that the player could be submerged in. With a few exceptions, the play mechanics of the original Marathon are largely intact. Although it features only one new weapon, and roughly half of its enemies are returning foes from the first game, none of the art assets for weapons or enemies are reused, instead being completely redrawn for the sequel. Marathon 2 saw the advent of several new multiplayer modes, such as Coop, King of the Hill, and Kill the Man with the Ball, which were accompanied by thirteen new network levels.
Marathon Infinity

Marathon Infinity (1996)

The final chapter of the Marathon Trilogy was initially envisioned simply as a means to deliver Bungie's editing tools, Forge and Anvil, to the player community, though it eventually grew to include a new campaign and a slew of new net maps. Often seen as the hardest of the Marathon titles to penetrate from a narrative perspective, Infinity was an exercise, according to series writer Greg Kirkpatrick, aimed at creating a plotline that was deliberately complex and difficult to follow. So named because of Bungie's desire to foster continued growth and longevity in the Marathon community, Infinity was seemingly successful in this regard, as its editing tools led to a large number of fan-created maps and scenarios that continue to be released over fifteen years later.

Other Releases

Ports

The Marathon games were not ported to a large number of systems at the time of their release, though Marathon 2 found its way to the PC in 1996 as a direct port by Bungie. In the same year, Marathon 2 and its predecessor were released together for the ill-fated Apple Pippin as Super Marathon. More than a decade later, Marathon 2 was ported again, this time to Xbox Live Arcade, where it was renamed simply Marathon: Durandal. This project was managed by Freeverse rather than Bungie itself, and actually ran on a new engine which boasted sixty frames per second (over the original's thirty), new HD texture created specifically for the rerelease, and a new single-player Survival mode. Unfortunatley, this release was marred by reports of motion sickness caused by the engine's high framerate, forcing Freeverse to release a later patch intended to address the problem. More recently, ports of Marathon and Marathon 2 have also been released for iOS as free downloads, both of which were personal projects spearheaded by Marathon fan Daniel Blezek.

Aleph One

Following the source code release of the Marathon 2 engine in 2000, the open source Aleph One project was created to develop a stable Marathon engine for modern computer systems. Some twelve years after the original source code release, Aleph One reached version 1.0 in late 2011, and due to the freeware release of the entire trilogy in 2005, Aleph One versions of all three games, as well as a number of other fan creations, can be freely downloaded from the project's main website, which run natively on Macintosh, Windows, and Linux operating systems. Aleph One is also supported under the multiplayer metaserver Mariusnet, allowing all three games to be played in both single-player and multiplayer on a wide variety of systems.

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