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Marathon (Mac) artwork

Marathon (Mac) review

"The Oath of the Vidmaster "

The Oath of the Vidmaster

(from the Marathon Level Bypass dialogue)

I pledge to punch all switches, to never shoot where I could use grenades, to admit the existence of no level other than Total Carnage, to never use Caps Lock as my 'run' key, and to never, ever, leave a single BOB alive.

To say that Marathon pfhans are incredibly passionate and hardcore about their Marathon would be an understatement. There is a huge internet culture of Vidmasters (Marathon pros), Marathon websites, thesis-length analyses of the game's plot, people whose internet handles are named for characters from the Marathon Trilogy (Durandal seems to be especially popular), a multimedia e-zine which came and went, software tools to play with every single aspect of the games... and then there are those of us who giggle as we replace the letter 'f' with a 'Pfh' in context to mimic the name of Marathon's villainous alien race, the Pfhor.

Consider what DOOM did for PC gaming. This was what Marathon -- also a sci-fi first-person shooter (FPS) -- did for Macintosh gaming, but it's all the more extraordinary a tale for a couple of reasons. First, Marathon completely snuck up on everyone in a climate when the Mac was in dire health (1995-1996). And second, technically and imaginatively, Marathon then blew away the competition on any platform, which was certainly nothing anyone would have expected. Thus, we Mac gamers fell into paroxysms ('Oh my god, we have our own ultra-cool game!') and Bungie Software made their biggest splash as a creative force to be truly pfheared.

U.E.S.C. Marathon

Marathon commences with a classic alien invasion. As a troubleshooter for colonists on Mars, you're making a return trip to the mothership, the Marathon, when twin disasters strike. An unknown alien race attacks the Marathon, and one of three artificial intelligences (AIs) aboard the ship, Durandal, is so heavily damaged in the initial assault that he turns 'rampant' and actually begins to assist the invaders. You're now trapped aboard the besieged vessel. Aliens are running amok, the crew are being massacred, the AIs are at war with each other...

and all they gave you was this lousy pistol.

On the carnage front --- Marathon provides a great variety of weapons which discriminate between armoured and organic targets, true onscreen reloading, dual function weapons (E.G. assault rifle with grenade launcher attached, both of which can be fired at once), the ability to use a pistol in both hands at once, the ability to look and fire up or down, an Aliens-inspired motion detector, a REAL physics engine with powerful inertia which caters for the gravity of different planets and spaceships, total chaotic warfare between the aliens and the crewmembers and droids who assist you, and for deathmatch freaks -- eight-player network carnage.

On the cerebral front --- Marathon (and its sequels) still have the most brilliant and involving stories for any FPS that I've experienced. You're at the mercy of the warring Marathon AIs with whom you communicate via computer terminals spread throughout the ship. Leela; the soothing mother figure AI whose paramount concern is your survival. And Durandal; the insane AI who philosophises, tells stories, sprouts poetry, has a wicked sense of humour, and seeks to play intergalactic chess using the Marathon as his queen and any lifeforms he can get his mitts on as pawns.

The Pfhor

The very concept of 'alien' is central to Marathon. The key to the game's overwhelming atmosphere is its realism on its own terms. The makers conceived of whole alien biospheres, aesthetics and logic systems that truly have no relation to our own, hence the player's bewilderment and fear throughout the game. When you board a grimy purple Pfhor ship filled with pulsating orbs and irises, green rivers of energy, and corridor networks that make no sense by human standards, you experience the truly uncanny sense of being in an alien world. Inversely, on the Marathon itself, you don't feel that you're being shunted around just for the sake of hitting artfully hidden switches to open doors (ala DOOM). You believe that you're in a fully functional colony ship. Your goals as dictated by Leela or Durandal will involve all of the ship's systems at different times, from collecting computer chips and restoring damaged circuits to realigning satellite dish arrays and negotiating airlocks. True and often deep puzzles... all of which you'll grapple with while gunning down hordes of relentless Pfhor, of course.

The Pfhor warriors are memorable creations: Tall, spindly and spider-like humanoids with three eyes who seek to cut you apart or blast you with their energy staves. Their thinness is unnerving, as it's easy to miss them without precise aim or meaner weapons. They chatter at each other in alien dialect and make bizarre skidding noises as they scramble through the dingy corridors. Their enslaved allies, the Darth Vader-esque S'pht, have caused many a Marathon player to cry aloud in shock. They float about in complete silence, and are likely to descend noiselessly behind you to deliver a fatal electrical bolt to your back. Pfhor troopers make tinny sounds when your bullets thump into their armour and lob grenades at you the way onlookers toss confetti at newlyweds.

There are numerous other alien species and forms both great and small, from space wasps to titanium-plated flying juggernauts. Suffice to say that they are all eye-opening yet 'realistic' creations, and none of them die prettily. As with every aspect of Marathon, there's something genuinely alien about the watery deaths and sound-effects. Audio cues are enormously important in general. The skid, the scream, the grind of machinery; all of these sounds can give you the moment's warning you need to ward off impending death. Or to at least equip your Zeus class fusion pistol and start charging up.


Claustrophobic Dread. Possibly the two most relevant words to describe the feel of Marathon. Certainly there are plenty of huge arenas and well-lit docking bays, but inbetween these are maze-like warrens of dingy service tunnels where you're in constant terror of a surprise attack. The Marathon itself looks as authentic as could be, a majestic but very battered vessel which has served mankind for centuries. There are numerous grandiose windows through which you can stare into the maw of space, or at the nearby Pfhor ships as you imagine what might lie inside them. What's even creepier is the constant sense of being watched over in turn by the AIs, especially the menacing Durandal.

There are two main counterpoints to the game's scariness. Stray crew members known as BOBs (Born-On-Boards) run around the ship in a mad panic which is quite funny. 'They're everywhere!' they shriek; Marathon's best-known catch phrase. The large-scale splattery carnage of BOBs by the aliens on some levels has to be seen to be believed. Even upon those occasions when you participated in it.

The second humourous counterpoint comes in the form of the famous level titles which appear on the map screen, including such gems as:

- Bigger Guns Nearby
- Defend THIS!
- Smells Like Napalm, Tastes Like Chicken!
- Pfhor Your Eyes Only


Marathon's physics are so persuasive and macroscopic that the game even figures in more damage if you punch something after a run-up than if you do so from a stationary position. If you leap into a stairwell here, you'll be skidding completely out-of-control until you stumble out at the bottom. Try fighting in low-gravity environments where you can sail gracefully through the air while spewing napalm. Or try fighting in a no-oxygen environment where none of your munitions based weapons will work. Firing your own weaponry in general is liable to throw you about violently, especially the grenades and rockets. Explosions and shrapnel will hurt both you and your enemies. In fact you can set up chain reactions of death by targeting your most 'explosive' enemies first. Reloading is also a very significant factor, as the time spent jamming in new clips whilst being shot and stabbed can be the difference between life and a puddle of blood. Marathon combat is an incredibly skilful affair.

DOOM's rocket launcher pumped rockets out like a nail-gun, and while that was fun, you certainly felt no compunctions about using the thing. Marathon's rocket launcher, the SPNKER, is such an awesome beast that to merely equip it makes you cringe. Your character slowly hauls the SPNKER into position on his shoulder. It now bobs up and down filling %25 of your view. It only holds two rockets at a time, but when you fire one, the whole world knows about it. There's a smoking vapour trail, an anticipatory hiss, then SPANK -- corpses are hurled through the air and pasted to the walls with such enormous kinetic energy that they remain pinned there for seconds before splashing to the ground in a puddle. Marvellous.


The dynamics of life and death in Marathon are very different to those of the vast majority of FPSes. There are no health pickups; your shields can only be replenished by visiting the shield terminals scattered around the ship. The game cleverly toys with your resilience, as generators come in single, double and triple strength forms. You can only ever heal up as far as the local generator will allow you. Thus the game can pump your health up for massive alien encounters, then strip you back down to the basic level again when it wants to test your skills in other ways.

Similarly, you may only save your game at one of the Pattern Buffers also spread throughout the ship. This provokes some excruciating tension. Where is the next pattern buffer? Can I make it back to the last one without being cut to pieces? You will be forced to accumulate the skills to take on some very long or torturous stretches without any kind of respite. Predictably this has its frustrations, but the pay-offs are tenfold. Consider the sweaty fear-soaked playing it inspires from you each time you enter a new level where you have no clue where anything is, and when you can hear the Pfhor skidding in for the kill. Or consider the unbeatable satisfaction of finally surviving that ungodly encounter with thirty aliens which had you screaming and replaying all afternoon.

The mayhem-ridden combat is triumphant. Still, many of Marathon's most powerful impressions upon the player are the more elusive ones. The lonely feeling of logging onto a terminal expecting Leela's help, only to find static or random outpourings of computer gibberish. Your own smile of fatalism as shadows part to reveal an entire army of Pfhor whom you simply didn't notice because they weren't moving and thus didn't register on your motion detector. Or the increasingly metaphysical dimensions the whole experience takes on as Durandal grows more and more insane, finally directing you into 'Ingue Ferroque', a level structured after the rings of hell itself.


The Marathon universe continued to grow through two sequels which technically trumped the original with more weapons, aliens, varied worlds and ambitious graphics. Surprisingly, the plots became even more challenging. I doubt I could name any other FPSes which could sustain such massive websites devoted just to their labyrinthine plotting and mythologies. Yet the chill factor of the original Marathon, that sense of being constantly shepherded into darker and stranger alien-filled lairs in deep space, is very hard to beat. Marathon demonstrates that the visceral, the cerebral, the deadly serious and the wickedly funny can all work together at once. The result is one of the most thrilling, haunting and grueling games I've ever experienced, and is for me the definitive Macintosh game. I'm still no Vidmaster in spite of hours spent practising killing the Pfhor using only my fists on Total Carnage. But I am pretty good. And I've never used Caps Lock as my 'run' key.

Nowadays you can (and should) pick up Marathon as part of the boxed Marathon Trilogy set. Figure in the two sequels, the inclusion of over 1000 extra player-designed scenarios and conversions based on the Marathon engine, Bungie's own development tools and a pile of miscellaneous extras, and there simply is no argument against this course of action. Besides, you don't want Durandal mad at you.

By the way, I had an accident with some defense drones while you were away. You might bump into a few of them here. Don't worry, they're mostly harmless; I don't think I gave them any ammunition for those grenade launchers.



-- Marathon -- 10/10 --

bloomer's avatar
Community review by bloomer (February 06, 2004)

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