Infinity, Beyond: A Small Japanese Studio Braces for the Future

Infinity, Beyond: A Small Japanese Studio Braces for the Future

How the developer behind 8-bit cult classic The Battle of Olympus has survived nearly 30 years of industry upheavals, and what's next for the company.

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Infinity's current website header, featuring some of the best-known games from their back catalog.

Horimoto's break came not from designing a game but rather utility software to help users file documents in the days before graphical interfaces and drag-and-drop folders. While he did work on games as well during this period, those were under the auspices of his employer. The utility program he created in his spare time allowed him to create Infinity, a place where he could devote himself to working on his own game.

"I quit [my job] and set up my company, Infinity, in September 1986," he says.

Despite Horimoto's PC expertise, though, Infinity began working immediately on console games for Famicom and the add-on expansion, Famicom Disk System.

"When I graduated from my university, there were no awesome computers at the time. I think Apple had computers on the market, but they were very expensive and not very common, so not many people could get them. But the first company [I worked for], they were very aggressive with computers development, so they bought many computers for research, and I could use them.

He laughs. "I think I was really amazing back then! In my first microcomputer project, I had to make a software program in assembly language. No one came to teach me about that, so I had to learn assembly by myself, and I did, and I created a program. My boss was surprised: 'How did you make this?'

"I always had an interest in learning new things, so these experiences helped me understand new things easily. Programming computers is actually very simple. You just need to understand the assembly language and you can make something. In that era, programmers needed to do many things, like put sprites on the screen and draw many characters, and so if you didn’t have another programmer, you had to do it all yourself. Sometimes you even needed to compose music. So in the first [Infinity] project, it was me and the graphic designer and another programmer—three of us made our first game. It was also our first challenge for NES programming, so we had a really hard time."

Infinity's first game project, Keita Princess for Famicom Disk System.

"In making a game, time is the biggest issue, right? So we had a deadline and orders, and we were behind. We needed to catch up to the deadline, so I needed to work through nights."

That first project turned out to be a little-known FDS action game called Kieta Princess, based around a popular young actress at the time by the name of Yasuko Tomita. It was part of publisher Imagineering's WaveJack series, a trilogy of FDS titles built around the image of "idol" celebrities, though ultimately having little to do with those girls' work. Kieta Princess combined an RPG-like overworld with simple platforming—an unremarkable release, but nevertheless an impressive feat for a trio of young game designers who had never worked with Nintendo's hardware before.

However, it was Infinity's third creation that would prove to be the company's big break... or that was the plan, anyway. That game, The Battle of Olympus, would be Infinity's first international release; it even received a Game Boy conversion in Europe. It was by far a more impressive production than Kieta Princess. However, Horimoto says Olympus sold far below expectations; as the company's first attempt at creating a wholly original production, its failure essentially torpedoed prospects for future original creations. [For more on The Battle of Olympus, check back later this week for our in-depth making-of feature on the game.]

Infinity's port of Amiga tennis game Grand Slam. Source

The transporter

With the team's big push for creative freedom a failure, Infinity instead found its niche by looking to the game the company worked on between Kieta Princess and The Battle of Olympus: The Japanese localization of Kinetic and Databyte's Amiga tennis game Grand Slam. The company's bread-and-butter for the next decade would be in bringing Western computer games to Japanese PCs and consoles. With Horimoto taking lead programming duties, Infinity converted a number of all-time classics for publishers like Imagineer and Electronic Arts Victor, including Wolfenstein 3D, Populous, and Doom. (Game Developers Research Institute has an extensive list of Infinity's projects as of 2012.)

While undoubtedly disappointed by the financial failure of The Battle of Olympus—a deeply personal project—Horimoto nevertheless recalls the remainder of the 8- and 16-bit years with fondness. "It was a really exciting time," he says. "There were so many genius programmers in the United States and Europe. I got to work with their source code, which was really fun for me.

"My challenge then was to run such sophisticated software on different hardware with the same speed. But I did it! I like programming game software, but systems programming... other than disassembling, it’s very common work. Decompiling the binary software and making it into source code and reading the comments and examine what this program does. I increased my knowledge with that method, and I became familiar with hardware. It wasn't usually difficult to change the source code, depending on the hardware. I really enjoyed it, and reading the source code written by different people—I learned many things from them."

Infinity's first major conversion project arrived in 1989, with the Famicom/NES port of Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. Besides its Japanese release, Quest of the Avatar also made its way back to the States. It was here that the Horimoto's programming prowess became clearly evident; compared to the NES's middling port of Ultima: Exodus from several years prior, Infinity's adaptation shone. Origin's groundbreaking RPG series became something of a mainstay for Infinity, who also ported Ultima V, VI, and Underworld to a variety of Japanese platforms.

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