Unlike many other old video games gradually falling to bit-rotting oblivion, the door closing more and more with every passing year on discoveries that hadn't already been made, in a local reversal of entropy there has been a steadily increasing amount of information wrangled from the knuckle-dustered fists of Bungie's first pure 3D shooter, Marathon, the more time has passed since its 1994 release. This has been due to an actually quite significant cult-like following gradually prying open its rather well encrypted secrets and subtleties, as well as Bungie's people themselves coming forward with whatever they happen to remember about the whirling development cycle. I say "cult-like" because unlike many other cult classics, the only reason Marathon has ever been a resident of the gaming underground is its exclusivity on the Macintosh until more recently when a supremely accurate Windows source port named Aleph One, capable of running any of the three games in the trilogy (all graciously made freeware in the year 2005), bubbled up from the life-giving primordial soup the games were left floating in. And when I say "secrets" I'm not talking about what you might first think of in this context: secret doors and corridors (though those are also much less obvious than most shooters you're familiar with). More so, I'm referring to the secrets of the game's story, some of which are belied only by a very close inspection of the game's novel-esque in-game script, which is also all delivered in the same way, in written text instead of voice-overs. This is, then, a thinking man's – even a philosophical man's – first-person shooter first, and frankly, foremost.
Let's make sure we put this game on its appropriate pedestal before we start the inevitable scoffing over things the later entries went on to remedy. The first of the Marathons is a game you are adviced to approach as a narrative, without needlessly swamping yourself in the not-as-illustrious gameplay. Bring a camera and try to capture all of the various innovations that it brought into the genre amongst the great forerunners, especially considering the breakneck speeds the ludological evolution was striding at in the 90s. To name some: a modern-style mouselook option; multiple fire modes; allied fighters; more than one kind of level objective; low-gravity areas; a motion sensor; health recharge stations; impossible spaces well before any other liked shooters did them (System Shock and possibly Ultima Underworld were more 3D than it though); a top-notch eight-player multiplayer extravaganza. And it didn't do a poor job of dressing its levels up in ways evoking the kinds of spacey spaces you're meant to be exploring, making it probably the second game after Shock to earn that award. As a college-grad scifi story with player participation, it absolutely stands on its own even today, and launches the trilogy on its interstellar journey at the kind of speed you would want a colony ship to be traveling to get more [game]worlds colonized before the cryo-chambers fail or the AI goes rampant.
Speaking of... As you'll learn from the short introduction in the manual, you are a specialist in cleansing. In cleansing space ships from signs of slimy alien life, to be precise. As you are about to dock inside the eponymous colony ship, badly in need of your services, you're promptly given a taste of your own medicine as one of the three onboard AIs, Durandal, attempts to cleanse you of your own slimy life signs. The gameplay proper starts after you narrowly avoid this fate, in a scene where you're immediately drawn in by one of the game's big fixtures: computer terminals that keep you supplied with news, objectives and advice from the AI that's still friends with you, and other random cosmic background information. There is also no time wasted, or love lost, before the introduction of the distinctly slimy Pfhor about whom some of the ship's natives headlessly fleeing from the un-invitees will corroborate: "They're everywhere!" For a thinking man's game, the thinking is sure interrupted frequently.
Having found the hardest setting, for reasons we'll get to, resistant to a completely blind attempt to purge the threat, I settled for a playthrough on the second-hardest instead. I'm ultimately torn as to whether I can even recommend that setting for newcomers, however. This game does not play ball when it comes to storing your progress! Saving is exclusive to sparsely scattered save points which, in the majority of levels, you will have no idea where to locate. The game also does not do sports related to healing. Healing is also exclusive to special stations with no real rhyme as to their placement. This results in a wild variance in difficulty running from base to base seeing as it often comes down to luck, with some deaths putting you back a very far distance, even further than the start of the current level. At the extreme, entire levels have to be cleared without errors. If you fear getting numb to repetition of the same trivial gameplay to get to the more challenging parts again, I strongly advice you to either swallow your pride and get psyched only for the medium difficulty or lesser (looks like you can't change it mid-playthrough)... or even readying the cheat scripts provided, with instructions, in the "extras" folder, one of which allows saving anywhere.
I have not felt less guilt popping cheats like chronic arthritis makes people pop painkillers towards the back end of Marathon. The game incentivizes you to continue homing back to the last save or heal station having made even minute progress. You may remember how Half-Life, a game borrowing a very great deal from Marathon's formula, made sure to cap how much healing every healing station would offer, aside from the far more linear progression, to ensure its gameplay wouldn't ever devolve to that. One of the points none of the many meritorious reviews the game has inspired in recent years seem to bring up is what the meaning is of calling the game "Marathon". For me, not only does it (and Thermopylae, also referenced) remind you of the typical kind of massive massacre you're enacting upon an invading force your compatriots (com-race-triots?) might have, as did the Greek of the Classical Period, feared to be undefeatable, but ironically, also evokes Pheidippides' famous long trod (mentioned in the game's manual, albeit the mythical instead of the historical version) in how it feels to play it. In what I refuse to call an extreme view, I don't think this game would have been a worse experience had Bungie taken even something like ten full levels, aborted all of them on their sketch pads, and instead focused on upping the quality and variety of the remainder, including through more robust playtesting. It is known much of the game was concocted in a hurry with the release date creeping up and the early level tests failing to impress. There are parts of it that are almost universally panned for tedium, including some definitely not justified by the story. Even the way you move from level to level, generally without an intermission screen, makes it psychologically more treadmill-like.
The gunplay is, similar to the first stretch of SiN, also very samey until late into the game. This is due to the superiority of the machine gun / grenade launcher compared to any other weapons, which are initially few in number anyway. There is even a level where you have exactly one firearm functioning, with potentially tons of fighting unless you realize what parts of it are optional. At least it has two fire modes. Otherwise the pistol is okay but only if avoiding the higher difficulties. The fist is alright before you start getting cornered by hordes later on, again, given a lower difficulty setting and once you've been told about the hidden (yup, completely undocumented) feature of its damage increasing dramatically if you run towards your enemies as you're swinging it. That's all the weapons until level seven, which sports the first opportunity to expand your arsenal within a small hidden armory. I'm spoiling that for you as the game desperately needs you to find it! Even later on, there are some problems given the machine gun, as most other weapons, has to be reloaded at fairly short intervals (meaning no reliable hitstunning of key enemies); given how long it takes to reload the rocket launcher; given how the flamethrower, as they often do, blocks your vision, removing the ability to see incoming fire for your outgoing fire. In a nutshell, Doom has this game's balls in sheer gameplay balance. Somehow even starting in-fights, a great delicacy of the select shooters that implement it, doesn't feel worth the hassle, seeing as it takes multiple stray hits for such a fight to start. At least the enemies will sometimes take out their anger on multiple aliens once they do get sufficiently nettled.
As implied by what I said about chucking a large amount of excess bathwater before the baby drowns in it, the level design is also not always 100% there. My perspective coming to the game in 1994 would have been dramatically different, but the jaded whiner I am now, I have no great sympathy for old-skool shooter tropes like mazes and switch puzzles. Those are very commonplace, and I daresay more annoying than those of the best FPS's of the era. Aside from that, you have a lot of corridors too tight to navigate around hostiles or even the deadweight colonists you're meant to be shepherding, long distances to backtrack, and many pointless ambushes you have little hope of surviving the first time around (thanks to the aforementioned corridors), at least not without causing another long-winded trek back onto the same ledge you've been pushed off. In multiple levels, enemies can even spawn in behind you making no noise as they do so. There isn't even a killcam to show you what killed you! Again, playing on a lower setting might make all this more tolerable. Another problem is the lack of cohesion on the arcadey/fun --> realistic/cerebral spectrum, resulting in something half-baked from both angles. The game has absolutely sublime worldbuilding (for the time, and despite most players likely to miss much of it) weaved into little details here and there, and manages to, in principle, incorporate a variety of styles and interesting effects into the levels. Still, it feels like there needed to be more discipline and coordination, and a more extensive usage of some features that ended up being one-offs, or too well-hidden (it took me ages to even find out the game had several different power-ups!). Even the room over room effect feels underutilized, perhaps due to being clumsy to insert, or a late implementation. Meanwhile, this is one the very first games to be fully aware of and encourage weapon-based movement tricks, which, if taken the time to master, can spice things up and reward you with nifty shortcuts (and yet more secrets).
So to have gotten immersed in a game both rich in lore and exemplary in gameplay, you would have had to delay your gratification to the two direct sequels. As a piece of undeservedly obscure gaming history, being the springboard and in many ways blueprint for the whole later Halo franchise, and given its many novelties, Marathon gets two thumbs up regardless!
TIWIKs = Things I Wish I'd Known
- The aforementioned running punch technique!
- Usage of the motion tracker is essential, and it genuinely tracks only motion.
- You don't have to hold the button down to recharge shields! Just make sure not to move the view even a pixel and they'll top up on their own.
- Don't miss the new weapon introduced in level seven: this page will tell you where it is without any spoilers if you've first cleared the rest of the level yourself.
- If the alien weapon causes your screen to intermittently freeze, know THAT'S NOT A FEATURE! I couldn't find any mention of others having had the same issue that I thought was just a way to balance the weapon, but this certainly made the game even more wearisome, given the weapon's great power.
- There are switches that can only be activated with a grenade or charged fusion shot.
- The game makes you simultaneously feel like there aren't any and that you're constantly missing out on secrets. The secrets generally don't contain anything life-changing, however, and sometimes the game is just teasing you, so don't get stuck too long trying to find the way in to those succulent weapons caches. Note that the weapons in slots 4 and 6 are genuinely not present in this game so you're not missing out on those!
- Settings cannot be changed during gameplay (i.e. the game cannot be paused, only aborted)!
- If you reach an exit terminal but you don't want to be teleported to the next level yet, you can hit ESC to abort the transition.
- Some levels are very evil in requiring you to do a very thorough sweep of the area to be allowed to exit! In such levels, make sure to go out of your way to step inside all interesting-looking sectors on your way past them.
Reviewed by: LotBlind