The Marathon Trilogy Ranked
Before DESTINY and before HALO, American video game developer Bungie made a different sci-fi first-person shooter franchise: MARATHON. The series quickly proceeded through three games in three years, ending up as an important trilogy not only in the history of Bungie, which would go on to greater success, but also shooters, Macintosh gaming, and virtual storytelling. By extension, the MARATHON series represents a crucial moment in time for video game history at large, but beyond casual mentions in relation to its successor series HALO, it doesn’t appear to me that this trilogy gets celebrated at the appropriate scale. And that may be because of, as mentioned, MARATHON’s association with Macintosh and Apple. Even today, but especially in the mid-1990s, Apple’s computers were not considered the primary vehicle for PC gaming. The tech giant now has a dedicated video game ecosystem through its iOS devices, but the predecessor to that dynamic was the small but passionate group of Macintosh developers and players that emerged in the ’90s. Bungie was, as far as I can tell, almost exclusively an Apple developer first until, ironically, it was acquired by Microsoft. Its MARATHON games are seen as central artifacts of the Macintosh gaming scene that I’ve described, and they are still historically significant and fun to play today. Thankfully, they are no longer exclusive to Apple devices. Just before being acquired by Microsoft, Bungie released the source code to its three MARATHON games, making them easily playable in the upgraded engine Aleph One after the series’ creators also licensed the games for free distribution online in 2005. This is the means by which I’ve been able to experience the MARATHON series, and after playing each of the three games, I’ve used this piece to explain their value and rank them below.
Note: All games developed and published by Bungie.
#3 — MARATHON INFINITY (1996)
I can’t believe I’m writing these words, but MARATHON INFINITY is almost a kind of “avant-garde shooter.” To be clear, at its mechanic and visual core, the conclusion to the MARATHON trilogy is a slight evolution from its predecessor. But in its approach to storytelling and level design, INFINITY utilizes out-of-the-box thinking…and it kind of boggles the mind, or at least my likely weak one. And that’s not necessarily a fully positive thing, as evidenced by INFINITY’s place as the “worst” MARATHON game. It is not bad by any means, and its FPS action is still satisfying, but Bungie lost the plot a bit with its third and final MARATHON installment. INFINITY introduces multiple timelines that sees the player character (a nameless, faceless security guard of the titular spaceship from the first game) jump around to different realities. These timelines often ignore the events of MARATHON 2: DURANDAL, and the series’ trademark storytelling tools, terminals, don’t really elucidate much. They often carry vague, cryptic language, and they reside in levels that also require opaque solutions to strange puzzles and layouts. The MARATHON series always did interesting things with traversal, but in INFINITY, it reaches obscure heights…or, actually, lows. This all makes for a confusing and at times frustrating experience, although as mentioned, the foundation of what makes MARATHON good is still present in INFINITY. It had just reached an already baroque, ambitious, and fractured place.
#2 — MARATHON (1994)
The first MARATHON was unique among its FPS peers in 1994, just one year after DOOM was released. First, while it wasn’t lightyears ahead graphically or artistically, I think MARATHON distinguished itself with a kind of “high sci-fi” visual style that defines its giant space ship setting. This may also be aided by the fact that the game is set within rendered 3D environments (although enemies and such are 2D objects within them). Second, MARATHON placed a premium on storytelling, using the principles of what we now know as “environmental storytelling” and logs/conversations through terminals to chart an expansive plot not yet seen in the FPS genre. Finally, and this is important: MARATHON allowed for free look with the mouse. Your view was not just limited to left and right; you could also look up and down! These improvements make MARATHON feel like a richer, if not universally better, experience than its peers. While the game tells a deeper story than most, it’s not like it’s some Shakespearean work. But MARATHON’s, and by extension the whole series’, focus on the impacts of artificial intelligence, dark humor, and unsettling atmosphere are elements of the presentation that distinguish it. Even this early, Bungie was already very skilled in giving its guns satisfying and “realistic” firing patterns. As in HALO and DESTINY, it’s fun to shoot MARATHON’s futuristic weaponry. Bringing this action to a cool setting, a huge but interconnected spaceship that gives the game and series their name, marks MARATHON as a standout release for its time and a gem that has stood the test of time.
#1 — MARATHON 2: DURANDAL (1995)
But, impressively, MARATHON 2: DURANDAL quickly improved on the concepts Bungie introduced with its predecessor. Its strange subtitle, taken from the name of one of the AIs in the first game now dominant in the sequel (and a legendary sword), indicates the developer’s continuing commitment to that “high sci-fi” I mentioned. What I mean by that is that MARATHON 2 moves beyond sci-fi within a universe we really recognize (although Earth does come into play) to provide outlandish and colorful alien worlds; the action moves off-ship. It was also expanded by an improved engine that literally widened the player’s field of view. MARATHON 2’s ambient sounds complete its reorientation of the “vibe” of the first game. Meanwhile, the gameplay mechanics of MARATHON remain relatively unchanged. DURANDAL introduces a shotgun into the armory and different types of liquid allow for swimming, and it can safely be said that the sequel improves basically everything about its predecessor. The game’s main strength lies in its level design, which as mentioned, is visually brighter and more diverse. But it’s also more engaging on a gameplay level, with the traversal (changed by the introduction of those liquids, going beyond water to also include sewage, lava, and “goo”) and puzzles adding a welcome challenge to the straight ahead shooting. Another aspect of DURANDAL’s improvements is its multiplayer modes, which continue the unique-to-the-time dedicated approach to maps from the first game. Modes, plural, is important because besides centering competition in single player levels, MARATHON’s contemporaries also focused almost exclusively on team deathmatch; MARATHON 2 introduced games like King of the Hill and Tag. The series’ multiplayer contributions haven’t been mentioned so far because I haven’t played them, but they are an integral part of the games’ importance and place in video game history. Overall, though, MARATHON 2 is simply a slick and enjoyable FPS experience, continuing the richness of the beginning of the trilogy in an even more playable scenario. The weight of the series’ storytelling reaches its height after the relative simplicity of the sequel’s predecessor and the relative complexity of its successor, and while its gameplay is less markedly different across all three games, MARATHON 2: DURANDAL is the best in the series to jump into and play today.