Well folks, Marathon is coming back. What do you mean you don’t know what that is? It’s only Bungie’s seminal series of first-person shooters everyone was playing on their Power Macintoshes and Pippins in the 1990s. Where even were you? It’s why Steve Jobs was so elated to first announce Halo for the Mac…before that never happened. Well okay, it’s been a while and maybe we weren’t all Mac gamers. After yesterday’s surprising reveal of a new Marathon game for modern consoles and PC, you likely have questions. Fret not, as I have some answers, including how to play these classic shooters today on your modern PC.
First released for Apple Macintosh computers in 1994, Marathon was the start of a trilogy of sci-fi, sprite-based FPS games in the style of Star Wars: Dark Forces and, of course, Doom. A hit with Mac gamers, Marathon saw two full sequels in Marathon 2: Durandal and Marathon Infinity. And then the franchise laid dormant until May 25, 2023’s PlayStation Showcase when, following rumors and speculation, Bungie showed off an eye-poppingly stylish new Marathon game in a PvP extraction shooter format.
But with the original game being nearly 30 years old and on a platform not well known for gaming, Marathon might as well be a new IP to many. Bungie released a video or “vidoc” that dives a bit more into what to expect from the new game, and while its multiplayer focus might disappoint some fans of the series’ traditional campaigns, it divulges a lot of promising, if scant, details.
So yes, Marathon will be an extraction shooter now. But before we delve into that, let’s back up a bit to explore how we got here.
What even is Marathon, and where can I play the old games?
Often characterized as the Mac’s answer to Doom, Marathon distinguished itself from Id Software’s titanic groundbreaker by offering—wait for it—the ability to look up and down! It also featured an actual plot, and a pretty damn compelling one at that.
In fact, Marathon’s main appeal was arguably its pulpy sci-fi narrative; told through text-based terminals, the game wove a story of hostile alien forces and rampant AIs. That ought to sound familiar to just about anyone who’s played Bungie’s subsequent Halo series.
Speaking of Halo, Bungie, known for its repeat use of iconography, scattered dozens of references to Marathon throughout the early Halo games (this, understandably, stopped with the release of Halo 4, when Bungie left the series). And veterans who’ve braved the depths of Marathon’s lore have often wondered if, at least spiritually, Halo might be a distant prequel to Marathon.
While contemplating the epic scale of history in science-fiction narratives is fun, Marathon is in fact a separate universe from Halo. Set in the 28th century, players take on the role of a security officer—who later inspired a Halo 3 armor set, incidentally—who’s rooting out hostile aliens called Pfhor who’ve invaded the U.E.S.C. Marathon starship orbiting the planet Tau Ceti IV. (That is the same planet on which the new Marathon game is set.)
Classic Marathon is like a down-tempo Doom. In fact, if Doom is Slayer and Metallica, then Marathon is Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream. That’s true of its sonic stylings as well as its gameplay which, though featuring maps and corridors with secrets to unravel, was always slower and more wrapped up in its narrative than Doom and other shooters of the era.
If that’s piqued your interest, then there’s good news. You don’t need to hunt down an old Mac or a physical copy of the games (which came in super cool packaging, by the way) to enjoy them. Or even pay anything. All three Marathon games are free to download and work on PC, Linux, and Mac. There are also iOS versions if you want to play them on the go.
Bungie released the original games as freeware in the early 2000s, and today the Marathon trilogy is fully playable via the open-source Aleph One engine, which offers a number of common comforts, including the ability to change up the old, rather antiquated HUD. And yes, Aleph One supports multiplayer, with a variety of team-based game modes and cooperative play. So clearly, it’s time to get your friends together and have a Marathon party (everyone will think you’re real cool if you do that).
Just like Doom—albeit on a much smaller scale—Marathon enjoyed a number of fan-made levels and campaigns. Instead of WADs, they’re referred to as scenarios. Some of these are harder to find than others, but classics like Marathon: Eternal, Rubicon X, RED, and Phoenix are pretty sweet and a good place to get started.
That brings us to 2023 and the announcement of this new Marathon game which, at least as much as we can gather from a blog post and two gameplay-free videos, will be very different from the original games.
Okay, so what’s an extraction shooter, and how does that work with this series?
Though classic Marathon’s multiplayer was much loved by its community, its core identity as a story-based single-player series makes the new pivot to being multiplayer-only a little strange.
It’s tempting to cynically see this as just a modern multiplayer experience wrapped in an old IP’s name and themes. And, true, we haven’t seen any real gameplay yet (though sharp eyes can snipe microscopic fragments of some action in the Bungie vidoc), so it’s anyone’s guess as to what’s on the horizon. In that video, Bungie said that it will “go dark for an extended period” leading up to the game’s alpha. But it divulged some interesting details nonetheless.
Let’s start with the genre. If you’re not acquainted with extraction shooters, know that they’re adjacent to battle royales in that death is pretty consequential, but they’re typically far more dynamic than a race to the last person standing. There are subtle differences between each game, but the core loop is the same: Deploy onto a map with both hostile players and AI, accomplish objectives, find cool loot, then get out as quickly and safely as you can. If you die, you typically lose everything you’re carrying (some games have means of recovering these lost items).
And hostile players don’t necessarily have to be hostile. The dynamic between competing interests often results in wildly unpredictable, generative gameplay situations in which unlikely alliances can form and campaign-esque scenarios can spontaneously break out. Extraction shooters have such a degree of surprising unpredictability that it’s even caught the attention of designers like Elden Ring’s Hidetaka Miyazaki. We’ve yet to see any gameplay from Marathon, but the very genre it’s working in means that it will be very different from any of Bungie’s PvP offerings of the past.
Bungie describes Marathon’s gameplay as taking place in “persistent zones” where players not only hunt loot to up their combat prowess, but are also pursuing various artifacts, and fighting for the opportunity to be the first players to unlock new zones, much like raid clans make (small-time) history by being the first to finish Destiny raids.
And true to its legacy of alternate-reality games (Halo fans might remember 2004’s i love bees ARG/marketing campaign), Bungie has already started hiding secrets in its trailers, leading avid fans to new details about the game.
One of the most promising features fans have unearthed is that Marathon will support dedicated servers with “disconnect recovery,” which basically means you won’t lose all your stuff should you suffer a connection outage. (Ask Call of Duty DMZ players about just how friggin’ frustrating that experience is.)
The game will also use “fog of war,” which will likely affect what you could see on a possible map or could play a role in visibility from the player’s perspective. That could nicely mitigate problematic opportunities for long-range sniping, particularly on spawns (again, ask Call of Duty DMZ players how rough that gets). That said, I’ve had some incredibly nail-biting 500m-plus sniper battles in DMZ, battles of a kind I’ve never had in other games, so hopefully long-distance combat is viable in Marathon to some degree as well.
Aside from collecting gear to shoot at other players, Marathon will also feature fragments of “artifacts,” which, when extracted, can be combined with other artifact fragments. What that accomplishes is a mystery for now, but you can hear references to “prime artifacts” in the vidoc.
And if the term PvP has you lamenting the loss of narrative focus, Bungie is promising a story that will play out over the course of seasons and is enmeshed into the very game itself. That sounds like it could potentially be pretty similar to what the studio is currently doing with Destiny’s seasons, and if so, it likely won’t do much to win over those yearning for a return to Marathon’s single-player days, but at this point, we can only speculate.
As Marathon devotees continue to unravel secrets via the ARG, they’re finding additional videos with hints at lore and story content. One such video featuring game director Christopher Barrett indicates that the game doesn’t just involve players trading shots with one another, but that their actions will uncover further mysteries. For instance, you might encounter a complete break in communication between Tau Ceti IV, the Marathon starship, and Earth, and have the opportunity to discover what’s at the source of it.
How such investigations actually play out is anyone’s guess, but it’s worth considering that the original games required players to invest time in reading lots and lots of terminals, both to learn the story, but also to learn about locations of essential weapons and mission objectives.
It goes without saying that the modern first-person shooter landscape is notorious for shallow offerings, and in extraction shooters, the risk of tipping over into pay-to-win scenarios has already proven to be problematic. The new Marathon will have a lot of potential mines to avoid stepping on here, and even Destiny 2, though arguably in a healthier place now in its balance of what you pay vs. what you get for free, had to go through some serious growing pains before it got the balance right. Still, if Bungie can take what it’s learned there and apply it to Marathon from the start, the game may manage to avoid such woes.
Extraction shooters are a blossoming genre right now, and Marathon as a franchise has been dormant long enough for it to feel fresh and new. In my opinion it’s a prime opportunity for an exciting new sci-fi shooter experience.