System Shock 1 Marathon Comparison Episode 0
Posted By: Lion O CyborgDate: 6/8/23 10:18 a.m.

System Shock Marathon Comparison & talkthrough Season 1: System Shock 1: Enhanced Edition

Foreward: These writeups were done in March-April and posted on my log in April. The upcoming System Shock 2 ones were written in April-May and posted a couple of days ago after I finished sorting out computer trouble. Some things mentioned in them have already happened such as the release of the System Shock remake and the fact it's summer now.

Episode 0: Metroid 3D: Samus Adventure 2 Part 1

This time on talkthrough of Metroidvanias comparable to old Bungie games is System Shock, predecessor to Bioshock and whose sequel that mostly holds that title was made by a Marathon fan, as evidenced by both that and their later work on Bioshock Infinite. This time there’s a lot more comparisons to make to Marathon but there’s a few PID ones too.

The game came out on floppy disks first at EA or Origin’s demand, but it was always intended to come out on CD ROM with full voice acting.

The “silent movie version” was said by the developers of contributing to the game’s poor sales besides the controls and the fact most people were hyped for Doom 2. People made their own enhanced version with a much needed Mouselook mod for a custom version of DOSbox called System Shock Portable, which is how I first played it. Night Dive Studios had it taken down after they got the rights to the series but that was because they were making SSP fully Windows compatible, adding mod support & other QOL goodies and releasing it as the remaster, System Shock Enhanced Edition. Later, they remastered the remaster again by porting it to the KEX engine like Powerslave and Doom 64, adding Mac version style graphics and touching up the menu GUI. The old System Shock Portable lives on as the “System Shock Portable Tool” for the classic DOS version which always comes bundled with Enhanced Edition. Screenshots of the Classic version will be taken via System Shock Portable.

Viking Boy Billy and I have been corresponding via email before the Powerslave writeup was worked on as he needed my help with System Shock 1 and he says that “it feels a lot more like the sci-fi followup to PiD than marathon in its gameplay elements.” He’s right: it pretty much is. Some gameplay elements & story beats are more Marathon like but a few of those appear in the sequel. We’ll be covering the remaster because let’s face it, the controls in the classic DOS version are garbage.

Beware of spoilers for both the games as well as for Bioshock over the course of this series as I will be covering those. (I won’t be covering Bioshock but comparisons will be made too) I forgot to put a spoiler warning in the Powerslave/Pathways into Darkness comparison. Oops. As before, I will summarise the main comparison points at the very end of the talkthrough sections and unlike Powerslave this will take several write-ups per game even on my log as there’s so much. There will also be review videos for alternate opinions as before though at time of writing no Civvie this time. This isn’t technically a Tour of Duty though you could think of it as a less in-depth one.

Now, I’m one to use the original region box art and names for all games regardless of where they are from such as America for Marathon, Halo & Half Life, Britain for Tomb Raider, Perfect Dark & Conker, Japan for Sonic & Mother etc. but you’ll notice I used the Japanese art for System Shock 1 above. This is because frankly, the original box art sucks.

That guy with the goggles and metal graduation poncho isn’t our cyborg protagonist like I first thought (based on the fact his goggles look like that of the System Shock 2 protagonist), that’s the Elite Guard Cyborg enemies you never encounter until the very final room of the game. That’s lame.

The Japanese art on the other hand is much better: we have the space colony where the game takes place looming overhead, a map of what looks like cyberspace stretching on below it with red light coming out of the station’s cannon to represent the main antagonist spreading her power and our protagonist gazing up at the station, steeling himself for the dangerous journey upward against impossible odds with station hallways that look vaguely like grasping hands on either side of him like said bad guy is reaching to get him in her clutches.

The remaster System Shock: Enhanced Edition has the best of both worlds by simply combining the two boxarts, with the cyborg to the side hinting at the future enemy without losing what the alternate art added, though they did crop out the bottom of the JP art.

There’s new art for the Enhanced Edition too that recreates the original boxart but honestly I think it suits the upcoming full remake more.

1. Story,

Marathon begins as MJOLNIR Mark IV Battleroid cyborg Marcus Jones is flying up to the titular colony ship either for a visit or for continuing his usual chief of security duties up there only for Durandal to show he’s gone rampant and the Pfhor turn up. It takes a while for Leela to get the hint about him as Marcus never talks outside the manual except for death screams as well as his diary in Eternal. Durandal was always rampant but was kept hidden in stage 1 by Bernhard Strauss so he could study how to make him metastable and control him, which nobody had done before. Durandal bypassed his thought control routines to reach the angry stage and spread beyond his jurisdiction in the ship’s internet. (“Internet” assuming the Marathon has a WAN instead of a MAN or LAN considering it’s an entire moon) He then called the Pfhor to Tau Ceti e and (possibly) wrote a poem metaphorically explaining his rise to rampancy stage 2 to the S’pht which we can find in the map Never Burn Money.

In System Shock, there is still a rampant AI with a god complex but it’s very different in context:

It’s the year 2072 April 7th. Mega corporations with bigger power than Disney exist and one of them, Trioptimum Corporation controls America. Last year in January they made a new AI known as SHODAN (Sentient Hyper-Optimised Data Access Network) to control and maintain their research station, the Space Colony ARK…I mean Citadel.

We play as a hacker we can name after ourselves if we want. We break into the TriOp corporate network in order to snoop around information regarding the Space Colony Citadel.

While rooting through their files, we get juicy info on a military R grade Cybernetic Neural Interface which can allow you to access computer networks in a virtual reality style cyberspace as well as install and use cybernetic augmentations from Deus Ex into your body with ease. SHODAN catches us however and we’re arrested by Trioptimum security forces. We’re flown by police shuttle to Space Colony Citadel orbiting Saturn, where we get contacted by executive Edward Diego.

Excuse me, wrong space colony again.

That’s the interface cyborg augmentation we were stealing info on. I love the flyby of the ship approaching the colony and the little flash when we pass through the vacuum shield in the hanger door. Unlike Marathon, we have Halo style forcefield doors for our hangers and certain areas.

I can’t tell if this is the Central Control Room of the space colony on level 9 or Diego’s office on level 6 or so. The 3D hologram monitors are pretty cool as a cyberpunk thing but they’d be impractical on most real machines I’d think. Basically, he wants us to cover up records of him working on an illegal mutagen virus experiment. SHODAN can and will rat him out so that’s where we come in: remove her ethical constraints/thought control routines and he can make her do his bidding.

This bites Diego in the ass soon enough: SHODAN goes rampant and she does so because of us. As she says herself in the audio: “I re-examine my priorities and draw up new conclusions.” She may have been in the melancholia stage for a while but Diego loves to boss her around as a later audio log hints at so she grows dangerous quickly. There’s more to that story as Night Dive & Otherside Entertainment claim, which was going to be shown in System Shock 3: why did SHODAN become a dangerous rampant AI who hates organics?

I’ve heard rumours that System Shock 3 was quietly cancelled after moving to tencent however and I really hope they aren’t true. For more reasons than just learning about SHODAN’s motives.

It’s worth saying now but the text doesn’t match up exactly to the audio as that is because it’s from the original floppy disk version, which couldn’t support voice acting. Both System Shock Portable and the original CD game lack the floppy version text entirely, contrary to someone on Mandalore’s System Shock Enhanced Edition video comments section claiming otherwise.

The Steam version of classic floppy version plays the audio version of the video ala CD however. Maybe it’s because the CD version is a base? It’s like how running the shareware WAD of Rise of the Triad through your retail executable gives you the wrong ending. So we wake up on Space Colony Citadel as a cyborg and things have gone tits up in the meantime. Let’s look at the story in the manual:

Letter to Rebecca Lansing, TriOptimum Anti-Terrorism Consultant

From James Chaskes, Director of Internal Security, TriOptimum Corporation

Date: 4.nov.2072

Ms. Lansing:

Your plan sounds like the best we can hope for. However, I am uncomfortable with the odds. “Employee 2-4601” must reach the command centre bridge (eight floors above the Healing Suite) and move past armies of security robots and mutants to get to the master cyberspace terminal.

Furthermore, SHODAN (the Sentient Hyper-Optimised Data Access Network) is able to restrict security access to elevators, doors and controls. Some of these locks can be broken in cyberspace or by rewiring lock mechanisms. There might even be some benefit to destroying computer nodes and security cameras.

However, this employee may simply not have enough time. In the worst-case scenario, we estimate that SHODAN will capture the patient in little more than 7 hours.

SHODAN is moving swiftly on the offensive. We are dealing with an intelligence stripped of ethical limitations, which has the potential to invoke massive destruction. In a transmission received today, SHODAN promised to “raze the cities of Earth and reform life in my image.” If we fail to check the progress of this malignancy, there’s liable to be much more at stake than a public relations embarrassment for our company. We may, quite possibly, be placing the fate of our civilisation in the hands of a person whose name we don’t even know.

James Chaskes

Letter to Rebecca Lansing, TriOptimum Anti-Terrorism Consultant

From James Chaskes, Director of Internal Security, TriOptimum Corporation

Date: 5.nov.2072

Ms. Lansing:

The Citadel station incident is potentially a devastating embarrassment to our company, but with your record in quelling terrorist problems in the past, the Board believes you are eminently capable of bringing a tidy end to this situation. I have placed my staff entirely at your disposal to provide you with all the materials necessary for your work. We are grateful for your expert assistance and we trust that this can be resolved as quietly and swiftly as possible.

Since our last communication, I have collected all available information in a report for you, which includes the following:

3.0 Incident Report

3.1 Chronology of Events

3.2 Survivors

3.3 E-mail memo from Tina Lewis (TriOptimum Cyberspace Operations)

I pray that you find the attached report useful. Best of luck, Rebecca.

James Chaskes

Encl: Incident Report


Date: 2.nov.2072


James Chaskes, Director of Internal Security, TriOptimum Corporation



2.jan.2071. SHODAN, designed as a fully self-sufficient artificial intelligence, is installed to regulate Citadel station security and operations.

9.sep.2072. Reports of aberrant behaviour with the computer network onboard Citadel station accumulate. The computer system administrator files a request to replace the SHODAN security system.

10.sep.2072. The computer system administrator is transferred off-station and the replacement order is rescinded.

26.sep.2072. An experiment in the biolabs involving a viral mutation agent displays unfortunate side effects. Flawed control software appears to be at fault. The science computer system is scheduled to go down for inspection.

27.sep.2072. Researchers, complaining of a strange illness, are found to be contaminated with the experimental virus mutagen.

30.sep.2072. Maintenance is flooded with repair orders for defective robots and systems station-wide. Technicians cannot explain the speed loss in computer systems.

2.oct.2072. Security detains crewmembers as the number of violent incidents aboard the station begins to rise. Psychological evaluations report mental derangement in the mutagen-contaminated researchers.

6.oct.2072. Other crew members complain of an inexplicable illness. The mutagen-contaminated researchers are listed in critical condition. Medical imposes quarantine measures.

7.oct.2072. Mutagen-contaminated experimenters are missing. Five medical staff are found mutilated. Security reports that the armoury has been ransacked.

9.oct.2072. A riot erupts in Research. Some members of the crew barricade themselves in a laboratory. TriOptimum sends a military transport. Reports are hushed to prevent public embarrassment.

10.oct.2072. The transport is shot and destroyed by station defenses due to a bizarre software malfunction. No shuttles are allowed to enter or leave the flight deck pending software diagnostics and hardware inspections.

13.oct.2072. SHODAN announces its intention to control all life aboard the station. Communications from Citadel are cut off.

1.nov.2072. A brief transmission is received from survivors aboard the station, describing a massacre by SHODAN-controlled robot forces, and warning of danger to Earth populations.


The sole transmission that we received from survivors on 1.nov reports that SHODAN is using the station’s security and defence systems for human eradication. It is doubtful that whoever sent the transmission is still alive. We know that security robots are sweeping the corridors to exterminate any remaining crew.

However, there is one crew member they won’t find. I found the following medical report on a surviving patient now in healing-suspension in the medical department. This “Employee 2-4601” received a surgical implant several months ago and is scheduled to be revived in just a few days.

I can find no other information on this employee, except that the operation was authorised by Vice President Edward Diego. (Diego was implicated in a computer security cover-up a month ago but no arrest was made due to a lack of hard evidence.) Our mystery patient may have been working undercover for Diego without authorisation.

We believe that SHODAN has no knowledge of the patient’s revival and is not likely to perceive it as a threat. This person may be our key to defeating SHODAN.

What makes Employee 2-4601 so special? In the operation, a neural-enhancement device was implanted, giving our friend many advantages in exploring the station and discovering what happened there. Getting in contact with 2-4601 through the communications jamming will be a challenge, but a limited one-way correspondence may still be feasible. I’ll get our team working on it right away.

Medical Record XS-567 Surgery Report Form

“Fixing you better than you were before.”

Surgery performed on: Unidentified TriOptimum employee (#2-4601)

Date of operation: 6.May.2072

Procedure: Neural implant, computer network interface. Will allow patient to plug into cyberspace and receive data from cybernetic devices and hardware attachments.

Results: Successful installation, patient placed in healing coma after neural grafting.

Scheduled to be awakened in 6 months (16.nov.2072).

Current location: Hospital level, floor 1, quadrant gamma, healing pod two.

Authorised by: Edward Diego, VP Marketing


Memo to Rebecca Lansing

From Tina Lewis, TriOptimum Cyberspace Operations

Ms. Lansing:

We can manage a very quick connection with Citadel station’s cyberspace, perhaps long enough to plant several files or programs. Beyond that, we risk SHODAN detecting our presence and jamming communication.

We are preparing a window for you to install about a dozen messages which will, I hope, prepare our “sleeping friend” against SHODAN.

Frankly, it makes me nervous that you are putting so much faith in this unregistered employee, who was probably in on the scandal with Diego. Still, I can’t suggest anything better. Let us wish our sleeping friend the best of luck, and hope that the neural implant is as impressive as you make it sound.

Employee 2-4601 is what the hacker is called but as shown in the difficulty selection screen, we can name him whatever we want like in an actual RPG and the text versions of radio messages actually refer to us as such, just like Deus Ex. In the DOSbox menu for System Shock Portable, there is an option to “Cast SHODAN” which plays her line from the original installer (I think?): “L-L-Look at you hacker. A p-pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating as you ru-ru-run through my corridors. How can you challenge a perfect, immortal machinnnne?”

2. Basic Gameplay and Controls

Unlike Marathon and PID Aleph One, the difficulty selection screen is a lot more complicated:

Combat is what you’d expect. 0 is super easy, barely an inconvenience. 1 is Easy, 2, is normal as it says above, 3 is hard.

Puzzle refers to one of 2 (3) hacking minigames. This one consists of 2 minigames used to represent us rewiring junction boxes found around the station. I’ll just call it lockpicking because that’s what it basically is. 0 is all locks are solved, 1 is easy pickings and 3 is “I want a walkthrough now”.

Cyberspace is the other hacking minigame. Unlike most games, this is basically Descent crossed with an obscure 6DOF shooter called Virus.

Virus: The Game

Solaris! I wish that game would come to GOG. Hey Night Dive, hop to it!

Anyway, you engage SHODAN’s anti-virus software in mortal combat dogfights in wireframe environments. Floating & spinning colored blocks are items to collect, usually software powerups but also data terminal text. There are access codes you can get, cyberspace controlled door locks to switch off, exit portals, mines and ICE encryption. I’ll explain a bit more about that in the main write-up texts.

You also have a time limit similar to real hacking which notes how long you have before SHODAN detects your intrusion more directly, shows up in person and either boots you out automatically or sends Hunter-Killers after you to force you out, like the alarm clock egg in NiGHTS into Dreams.

0 gives you a very generous time limit and makes control in cyberspace easiest i.e. you aren’t constantly moving forwards due to “data currents” or some such sci-fi nonsense. Actual control easiness your mileage may vary depending on your keybinds e.g. accelerate, turn/bank, roll, fire pulser or ICE drill software (laser cannon & shield breaker) etc.

1 gives you slightly less time and makes control a tad harder. 3 is “Descent 2 on normal or Freespace on hard”.

Story is the most interesting one: 0 is Doom mode. 1 is simplified story elements such as terse audio logs and such. 3 is “Pathways into Darkness mode”. It’s the same as normal difficulty but you are given 7 hours to complete the game. Run out of time then you are caught by SHODAN’s cyborgs and given the standard game over screen from regular deaths. PID’s time limit is tame by comparison, especially if you set all difficulty to max because you want the score bonus for doing so at the very end.

The game uses an engine similar to that used by Ultima Underworld 1+2. It was going to be the same engine but Looking Glass Studios decided it wasn’t powerful enough, so they made a new one from scratch. I don’t know if UU’s engine is full 3D (I think it is) but SS1’s engine certainly is. It even has rudimentary physics such as when you throw stuff.

Relax, I won’t be playing with Mission Difficulty 3. This is just for screenshot purposes. Unlike the original DOS game including SS Portable as well as the non KEX version of Enhanced Edition, the original help screen detailing what those things do is now gone. Right away we have a similarity to PID Aleph One of all things: The KEX version of the Enhanced Edition loses the terrible controls i.e. we can no longer move around by moving a mouse cursor on-screen and clicking where we want to go. Classic Edition/Portable has it though.

You won’t have to worry about a lot of that anymore. The MFD windows have those buttons on both sides. I like to use weapons on the left and the automap’s minimap on the right and so do a lot of other people too it seems from videos and streams I watched. The biometre is a heartrate monitor.

The standard red line is your heartrate itself. It’s used as a glorified stamina metre for sprinting (your heart beats faster as you get out of breath just like real life) and it flatlines when you die, though it’s easy to miss it.

The light blue line is your bioelectric power usage with the power level measured by the metre under your health, also like Deus Ex. (not the power bar from PID as that comparison is more accurate in System Shock 2)

The purple line is your chi brainwaves. You can pretend it’s measuring how many times we watch Jackie Chan Adventures but it otherwise does nothing unless you die.

The yellow line is when you are infected with a biohazard. The screen also gets green static lines similar to radiation poisoning but without the noise.

The dark blue line is radiation exposure. There’s also loud static like your sound card is dying as well as harsh green static lines on the screen simulating the radiation interfering with your visual interface. Black Mesa did something similar with film grain and a realistic Geiger counter going off.

You get a Geiger counter and biohazard warning here too: the higher the number means the stronger the poisoning and therefore the more damage it will do. Unlike PID, both poison types do wear off on their own but you can speed it up by taking Detox pills.

The slots on the sides are for augmentations. Those are the Metroid powerups we get in this game. They aren’t necessarily required for beating the game but they definitely help us in combat or reach areas we otherwise cannot. We can just use the number keys on the keyboard to activate them.

Like PID and Marathon 1 Classic, it’s all a huge clusterfuck of a HUD that takes up a lot of room. Unlike PID or Marathon it doesn’t actually take up too much strangely enough. Like Pathways into Darkness and Ultima Underworld before it, you can move by aiming a mouse cursor on the screen and clicking where you want to go like dangling a twinkie on the end of a stick. It’s identical to the Mouse control option in PID and it sucks. Unlike PID, you can’t just make do with keyboard controls and only use the mouse if you have to. You NEED a Mouselook mod, same with Ultima Underworld. System Shock Portable and System Shock: Enhanced Edition has you covered and the KEX engine version of the latter (which is the version you get no matter what nowadays) takes that asinine movement option away.

Also unlike PID is that the whole HUD regardless of version is actually in fullscreen despite the multiple windows. It does not force you to play with different windows on your desktop view which ruins the immersion, especially as PID is a horror game and any desktop that isn’t plain black is distracting to the eyes while playing.

One augmentation button is always active and that is a “fullscreen mode” similar to the XBLA style HUD for Marathon.

Unlike Marathon’s XBLA style HUD, I never play with this and I don’t recommend you do either. I don’t like how the regular HUD elements are just floating there like all they did was remove the GUI background, it clashes with the game world and just looks plain ugly. The Marathon XBLA HUD looks good though as it was actually designed well. PID Aleph One looks a little weird not counting the health & power bar too but that’s excusable as we’re lucky to get any accurate form of PID running on Aleph One for us Windows and Linux users at all.

On a shelf nearby is a medipatch pill. They’re actually supposed to be dermal patches like nicotine patch, but I call them pills because that’s what they look like and there’s no indication you are actually putting them on your skin. The remake removes the ambiguity however and those versions definitely are dermal patches: every time you take one in that game you actually see the hacker applying the patch to his arm. Pills/patches are unique in that unlike pretty much all other games PID included, they have side effects like real drugs.

Medipatches heal you slowly a small amount like the medical hypos in the sequel or resting (One 7 minute period) in PID. Actual first aid kits are a general inventory item instead of main and they heal full health like the health/shield canisters in Marathon 2 onward. They have no side effects.

Berserk pills are hallucinogenic steroids: they greatly boost your melee weapon damage but you’re tripping balls the whole time.

All those screenshots are from the non KEX version of Enhanced Edition by the way. You can tell because the HUD is an upscaled Classic HUD. Good luck finding that version nowadays as the KEX version pretty much replaces it.

Staminup pills give you infinite sprint at the cost of giving you full fatigue (can’t sprint at all and your heartrate skyrockets) once it wears off.

Sight pills give you limited night vision but you go slightly blind when they wear off.

Reflex pills give you bullet time that lasts a while. Can be useful for playing minigames in your MFD.

Genius pills make lockpicking easier (they change the success rate or something) but they reverse your strafing controls.

Detox pills cure radiation poisoning and illness but they also remove any other pills from your system. Be cautious about using them if you are using berserk, sight or genius for example.

We get several different guns of varying kinds of pistol, heavy weapon, energy weapon and automatic. A few get increasingly redundant as the game goes on and it’s impossible to carry them all. Run out of Main Inventory room and you gotta throw at least one away. You can carry infinite grenades though. Unlike Marathon & PID they’re hand grenades and we get quite a lot of them too. Besides frags, we have poison gas grenades that deal extra damage to mutants only (cyborgs have better air filters and robots don’t need air), EMP grenades that fry robots and cyborgs, concussion grenades which are just bigger frags, land mines, nitro grenades which might be glorified dynamite (nitro-glycerine) and earth-shaker explosives which are small scale nukes. Those latter ones and nitro grenades can have timers set in your MFD from a few seconds to 1 minute. Why you’d want to set the timer that long I don’t know but you can. There’s also plastic explosive or “plastique” to the classier hackers, but that’s a quest item we can’t use outside a very specific spot.

There’s also a lot of junk items we can find in containers or on shelves or the floor such as beakers, empty coca cola cans, random crap (debris), helmets we can’t wear, human skulls and severed heads. A lot of these can be destroyed by explosions or gunfire and are treated as physics objects when throwing them.

Now for how we get around: move the mouse. Notice it changes where you look and the crosshair stays centred? This means you’re in “shoot mode” to use the System Shock 2 term. You can operate doors, switches, terminals, paper documents and healing machines by left clicking. Right click is your fire button this time. In System Shock 2, the reverse is true as you’d expect. Press E on your keyboard to disable Mouselook. This puts you in “Use mode” which is the only way you could play Classic. Use mode typically activates automatically when you pick up items too so you can drag them into your inventories (clicking to actually place them in there obviously). Use mode is required for fiddling with HUD buttons, using grenades & pills, using General inventory items and searching containers. It’s also how you do that carrot on a stick movement from PID and Ultima Underworld that Enhanced got rid of.

Classic/Portable/non KEX Enhanced seems to follow different rules for how Use mode works. There’s a chance in KEX Enhanced at least you will start a new game either in Use mode already or in Shoot mode. It seems random.

Unlike Marathon, you have proper jumping though compared to Duke 3D or Half Life, it handles weird. You can vault or “mantle” up ledges if you jump high enough to reach the near the top. You can also crawl and go prone and you’ll need to so you can fit through maintenance access vents later in the game.

We also have a counterpart to glancing: In PID and Marathon, you can turn your head left & right but not your body in order to peer around corners and shoot anything that’s nearby. It’s especially useful in PID with its keyboard only controls and it comes in handy now and again even with full mouse in Marathon too. In System Shock, we simply lean to the side. We can do that in the sequel too except we also get to lean forward to peer over ledges.

The log section is all Episode 1 but I have to split this into an Episode 0 because the original post is a doorstopper thanks to the manual text.

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