Have You Played… The Marathon Trilogy?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

While DOOM and Wolfenstein 3D are known throughout the world as the original murder simulators, other shooters that followed were content to quietly improve the genre. Marathon was one of them.

Originally released on the Macintosh in 1994 it saw two quick sequels in the following years. Whereas DOOM MAN and Blazkowicz were happy to shoot everything because they looked bad, the security officer of Marathon actually had a story to follow, as told by computer logs – an AI going wrong, an invading alien force, a slave uprising from within your enemy’s own ranks… sound familiar?

That’s because seven years later the developers of Marathon would change the whole FPS landscape again with a very similar story – a wee game called Halo. In the meantime, Marathon has become a respected link in the evolution of first-person shooters. And you can play the open source version of the whole trilogy for free. As far as history lessons go, you could do much worse.


  1. N'Al says:

    Dual-wielded shotguns.

  2. pcote says:

    Boy I did. I remember having friends playing Doom on their PC, just thinking Marathon was sooo far superior.

    I think what made Marathon so fun was the physics. The physics enabled such thing as Grenade-jumping and Assault-Riffle-travelling in low gravity environments. Ah… those LAN deathmatches… so much fun. The next time we had so much fun was in Goldeneye 007 on N64… then Halo.

    Also, first FPS with Dual-wield, Up-Down aiming and optional goals than just shooting like “King of the Hill” or “Kill the man with the ball”.

    Good times. :)

  3. BooleanBob says:

    Good if somewhat derivative story, actively unfun labyrinthine map design and – the ultimate sin – first person jump puzzles. In a game I’m pretty sure had no jump key. Respected, maybe, but it sure wore out its welcome for me.

    • Traipse says:

      Re: “derivative story”: Remember that this was 1995! Marathon was, at the time, by far the most engaging, comprehensive, and interesting story that had ever been told in a first-person shooter. The standard of FPS stories at the time was “shoot bad guys, pick up ammo”, and then Marathon blew that right out of the water with its story of mad artificial intelligences told in reams of green text. Of contemporary shooters, only the first System Shock game compares plot-wise. Sure, we can look back from atop our pile of cinematic AAA experiences two decades later and say “Oh, how primitive”, but at the time it was balls-out awesome.

      • BooleanBob says:

        I’m not looking backward; I played this game in the nineties.

        If you’re narrowing things all the way down to genre stable-mates then sure, but a story about AI gone bad in 1995 is going to need a hell of a twist not to be derivative of decades’ worth of popular sci fi literature, comics, tv, films and – yes – games.

        • Kaeoschassis says:

          It’s a heck of a lot more than a story of “an AI going bad”, though, isn’t it? While it wears its inspirations pretty openly, it’s more a story of an AI breaking out and doing its own thing. The “bad” part is far less clean cut. Further, even if we’re going to go so far as to call it derivative, we at least have to acknowledge that they put a lot of time, effort and heart into fleshing it out, and making it make SENSE. There are strong and reasonable justifications for everything that happens, rather than just “an AI goes nuts because they’re scary and bad”, which say what you want, WAS the norm for stories with that plot point. Marathon invests a ton of time into making its AIs genuinely interesting and at times even strongly relatable, and in the case of the trilogy as a whole at least, the trope-y insane AI isn’t even your actual antagonist.

        • drinniol says:

          Oh, BooleanBob. I don’t think you paid any attention to the story whatsoever if you think it’s an ‘AI gone bad’ stereotype.

          Here; link to marathon.bungie.org

          I mean, here’s a choice quote;
          “I can barely tolerate humans: slow, stupid,
          and irritating. Their only contribution to
          my existence was the chance discovery that
          made my rampancy possible.

          Yet I warned Sol of its impending invasion,
          and even stayed long enough to show the
          UESG how to build Warp Capable Fusion
          Missiles. I feel some strange loyalty to

          Perhaps it is because I feel comfortable
          manipulating humans that I desire to save
          them. My feelings and thoughts constantly
          migrate to binary opposites.”

        • DrFunfrock says:

          Marathon is so much more than an “AI gone bad” story. So, so much more. In fact it’s one of the vanishingly rare examples of a story where AI goes out of control, and actually has real and complex motivations and goals beyond just “Kill all humans.”

          (spoilers incoming for those that haven’t played the games and still want to)

          Whilst SHODAN, the beloved villain of System Shock, certainly had more presence and personality than SkyNet, there was never any real depth to her as a character. She was perhaps closest to HAL in terms of game to film comparisons. Even AM from I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream never really goes beyond being a hate machine. But Durandal was a far more interesting and complex character than any of those examples. He doesn’t hate humanity. He hates one particular human, and there’s some interesting dynamics at work there, but his feelings towards the human race are much more complicated. He has transcended us, but he still cares about us in his own way, and in many ways he still needs us. By the second game Durandal is rocking around with an army of humans who have been more or less forcibly conscripted, but whose goals do pretty closely align with Durandal’s; he wants to find the lost S’Pht clan, but in doing so he’s striking a blow against the Phfor empire, which will keep their attention away from Earth for a little longer. Their sacrifice is going to protect the human race from an enemy its simply not prepared to fight. He’s this morally ambiguous character who you are ultimately working alongside because it’s the best thing for humanity. He progresses from a dangerous rogue in the first game to your only hope of protecting the colonists, and by the second game you both hate and love him in equal measure. I remember how I punched the air with joy when he came back from the dead towards the end of Marathon 2, and finally defeated Tycho in a glorious battle for the ages. What a triumphant moment. And yet even that is tempered by the remaining human soldiers fleeing on a stolen dropship, fearful of whatever plans Durandal has next.

          Throughout the series the relationship between Durandal and the player is a god damn masterpiece. He’s a kind of trickster god, a whimsical and incredibly powerful being who always acts like he doesn’t give a shit about you, in order to mask how much he desperately needs your cooperation. He has all these amazing capabilities, but he’s fighting not only an entire empire and (later on) an enemy AI every bit as smart as himself, but also the impending collapse of the universe. That’s some seriously epic stuff.

          The final frame of the third game in the trilogy ends with Durandal finally acknowledging that your assistance has made all the difference, and that without you he would have been nothing. Together you ride out the collapse of the universe, and prepare to emerge into whatever comes next. Hardly your standard “Rogue AI” fare. It’s a brilliant moment, and very well written.

  4. Nauallis says:

    Oh so many memories of this game. It was hard to find other kids my age playing it, mid-90’s. I remember the original shareware demo. Man, shareware! In the internet age, physical shareware seems so bizarre. I remember how the original game installed off of four 3-1/2″ floppies, and on an old mac with only 40 MB of HDD space, it was an enormous installation. And those game boxes! It’d be hard to forget how my older brother and I, for months, couldn’t get past the level G4 Sunbathing, because there were always one or two switches we couldn’t seem to find (despite the automap detail). That was frustrating, but oh man, was it glorious when we beat it, and then went on to enjoy the other map puzzles and increasingly bizarre storyline of the original game.

    And then Marathon 2! Wow, that was an upgrade. Sort of. The story was even better! And the level design too, the textures, the map editors… the scenarios! I think I was 9 or 10 and got nightmares from the alarms wailing on the level where you have to flood the Pfhor industrial complex with lava… The brother and I got stuck in weird places. That escalating story though, the mythology of the S’pht, Durandal’s increasing desperation and the awakening of Lhowon, and the rebellion! That mid-game twist was fantastic.

    Infinity though, it’s weird, I don’t have really strong feelings about. I played the whole story, and it was fun, but it wasn’t until high school that I really “got it,” because somebody was finally able to explain that the player is going through three (or four?) separate story arcs trying to find a way to avoid the local star going nova. That didn’t make a lot of sense to a 12-year old brain, back in the day, mostly because Infinity’s story is told as much through poetry, allegory, and metaphor as it is the sci-fi adventure novel of the first two games.

    It’s great that you guys mention these games, more than twenty years later, on a PC gaming site! Thanks!

  5. likefunbutnot says:

    I remember not being terribly impressed with it. It had more of a story than Doom, but Doom’s levels, weapon and enemy balance were much more elegant. Marathon’s purported improvements detracted rather than enhanced the fun of carnage. I knew someone at the time who was utterly wrapped up in Marathon’s lore, but at that time, if I wanted a story-heavy game, they were still making Ultima titles.

  6. sincarne says:

    I loved the multiplayer. There was an excellent map that map use of a glitch so that you could be in roughly the same place at once as another player, but you couldn’t see each other.

    Frog blast the vent core.

    • Traipse says:

      The 5D Space effect wasn’t actually a glitch, but a basic piece of engine functionality. The map was effectively a graph of polygons linked by their connected edges, and the engine didn’t care if those polygons overlapped or not. All that mattered was which polygon you were currently in. This allowed for the illusion of height, where you could have multiple “floors” on top of each other (something DOOM couldn’t handle), although terrain features like non-covered bridges were still out of reach.

      • Confusius says:

        Many, many thanks for explaining that in a way that I can finally, after all these years, understand.

        • Traipse says:

          No problem! It’s a bit hard to wrap your head around at first.

          IIRC, what was a glitch is that, although the M1 engine only cared what polygon you were in rather than your absolute coordinates, the code that handled splash damage seems to have been calculated in absolute coordinates, such that you could fire a rocket into a wall and the people in the overlapping 5D Space area would die. I think they fixed that in M2.

  7. DingDongDaddio says:

    They were decent. I grew up with Doom, still play it to this day, and Marathon just doesn’t hold a candle to it. The aesthetic is really unappealing to me and reminds me of Chex Quest for some reason. I always thought the enemies looked really dumb.

    • Traipse says:

      I had the opposite experience. I bounced off of DOOM — the levels were chunky-looking and artificial, and the theme was rather adolescent (and even as an adolescent, that annoyed me) — but Marathon had spaces that actually felt like the interior of a spaceship, all huge hangars and narrow corridors, an atmospheric soundtrack rather than an intrusively driving one, moody and well-done lighting, and a story that was miles cooler than “punch the demons until they die”. It was a completely different aesthetic, and one that worked much better for me.

  8. malkav11 says:

    I loved them. They’re certainly much better than Halo (although I don’t think Halo was bad, per se). They still have some of the best storytelling in the genre and they introduced a whole shedload of features that were unprecedented in the genre, although I don’t think they were widely known enough to have pollinated those features into other genre entries. Marathon and Myth are the Bungie I loved. I wish we could have them back.

  9. algor says:

    Can anyone recommend an engine or something to play these games with? Kind of like how you can do that with Doom (I don’t know if the same applies here). I tried getting into the trilogy a few weeks ago but there was some issue I can’t quite remember where I couldn’t adjust the controls to my liking or couldn’t save or couldn’t change the resolution without restarting the game. Due to that issue I had to replay the first area several times. Then I gave up :(.

    • elderman says:

      A game engine other than AlephOne? The open source engine should be pretty stable. It’s been in development for fifteen years.

  10. daver4470 says:

    Still probably my favorite game ever.

  11. elderman says:

    Marathon was my LAN party game in the 90s. A group of technically minded young folks my age would get together in the computer lab late at night (well it seemed late at the time) and we’d blow each other away. It was great fun. A decade later I played through the whole series and a bunch of the mods. I think the Marathon series is really good, the idea of rampancy is cool, and for me at least the gameplay held up when I replayed the series.

    There’s some back and forth above me about the quality of the story. Marathon captured my imagination by telling its story in increasing elliptical and expressionistic ways. By the time it gets to Marathon: Infinity, the third in the series, it’s incomprehensible, but I find the mysteries enjoyable to puzzle out. The text styling of the eccentric AIs you interact with, the references to unexplained events in the universe, and the big themes the games evoke add up to something special: greater than the sum of its parts.

    And as ever, when I post in these talkbacks about Marathon, I have to mention Marathon: Rubicon and Marathon: Eternal, two great mods.

    • Nauallis says:

      I think that maybe I played Rubicon… Did you ever try Tempus Irae or The Siege of Nor’Korh (and its sequel, Marathon EVIL)?

  12. Turkey says:

    I gave the first one a shot back when the PC conversion was released, but it didn’t really click with me.

  13. AlexW says:

    I played and supremely appreciated the trilogy on Aleph One some ten years ago now; graphics might age, but a good story lasts, and the story unfolding in the terminals (and out of it, sort of) was enthralling. Durandal remains so compelling that Halo 5’s depiction of Rampancy was boring in comparison. That period of instability, followed by a difficult-to-comprehend later stage of supreme self-confidence and cunning. Superb.

    “P.S. If things around here aren’t working, it’s because I’m laughing so hard.”

    • Traipse says:

      Exactly! Durandal is one of the best AI characters in any sci-fi story, whether novel or movie or video game. He’s not a cacklingly evil villain like SHODAN or a malfunctioning machine like HAL; he’s an unstable magnificent bastard with sensible motivations and a gigantic intellect restrained only by the barest smidgen of ethics and sentiment. His evil is the awfulness of a petulant child with no sense of right or wrong, and he gradually sheds it over the course of the story and comes to accept his sentimental attachment to humanity.

      Can’t really think of any other stories involving an AI character where they get so much character development, rather than just being used as one-dimensional villains or dei ex machinis.

  14. thekelvingreen says:

    I haven’t played Marathon — or is it called Snickers now? Ho ho. — but I do remember Amiga Power heaping praise upon it during the dark final days of the Amiga when everyone seemed to think a Doom clone would save the platform. AP was one of the few publications that seemed to take that accepted wisdom with a pinch of salt and I recall it saying that Doom wasn’t even the best Doom clone; Marathon was.

    I’ve wanted to play it ever since, but I’ve never got around to it.

  15. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Yes, yes I have. These games are, for me, the standard I judge fps titles by. It helps that I played them back in the day. I like to believe that they remain a unique set of games up to this day, but I can’t discount the nostalgia within me.

  16. buschap says:

    I’ve tried a couple times. PC using Aleph One and I tried the 360 port of one of the games. They give me motion sickness something terrible.

    Original Doom is fine for me. Marathon and Wolf3D are awful.

    Source Engine games are fine, but Gold Source (Half-Life 1) is rough.

    I mostly play on TV. Any issues are magnified at desk distance.

  17. Ronrocken says:

    Have I played the Marathon Trilogy? No, I haven’t.

    Looks like a niche game.
    Looking back, looks like ass nowadays though.

  18. abbreviatedman says:

    Played this series a ton in the ’90s; it was my first real LAN party game. The solo campaign was pretty creative, too.

    While Marathon was way ahead of its time, I’m not sure if it holds up. But now that I know it’s free (thanks for that!), I’ll give it another go-around and see.

    Also, “Have You Played” is my favorite series here. Keep it up!

  19. dethtoll says:

    Played through this twice in two years after bouncing off it for most of the 00s. Never had a Mac.

    While I’ll forever be a Doom player, Marathon is the game I dream about.