Infinity, a Game Boy Color game inspired by classic Japanese RPGs like Dragon Warrior, was supposed to be released in 2001. The game was nearly done, with the developers estimating it was roughly 90 percent complete, when suddenly, the game's publisher, Crave Entertainment, decided to drop support for the project. Infinity would sit unfinished for another 15 years before finally being released this month.
It was much harder to release a game in 2001, especially on a Nintendo platform. Not only were cartridges expensive to produce, they took months to manufacture. Without a publisher, you simply weren't going to release a game on Game Boy Color. Steam didn't exist back then (it would actually launch just two years later), and the legality of emulators was hardly settled.
So when Infinity's publisher vanished, despite being almost finished, the game was dead.
"Quality design and artistic talent gave way to statistical analysis," reads a statement on the official Infinity website from 2001, a not-so-subtle jab at Crave's decision to can the game.
"My feeling is that they were never really that into the game, and they were stringing us along in order to try to hire us," said designer Justin Karneges. "There were several times when they tried to get us to abandon Infinity and join different game projects of theirs."
Infinity wears its influences on its sleeve, unsurprising for a game crafted by a team of people largely in their late teens and early 20s, weaned on Final Fantasy and Secret of Mana. This was a personal tribute to their favorite games but through a Western lens. At the time, American-made console RPGs were largely a joke. Remember, it'd only been a few years since the release of Baldur's Gate, and the only noteworthy non-Japanese RPGs were mostly being made on PC.
Karneges's earliest design work happened in an unexpected place: calculators. Joltima, a mashup of Dragon Warrior and Ultima, was released for the Texas Instrument calculators in 1998. (There's a generation of kids, myself included, deeply familiar with using TI83 games to waste time in math class.) It laid the groundwork for Infinity, and it's still available to download.
Infinity was developed with private financing and without publisher support for a while, but in the home stretch, in 2001, the team started looking for a partner. One potentially golden opportunity was a chance to meet with Square EA, a partnership between Squaresoft and Electronic Arts. (The company's modern name, Square Enix, didn't appear until it merged with Enix in 2003.)
"EA was still making games for Nintendo platforms," said Karneges. "And so I figured through their relationship with Square they might appreciate a
This wasn't a formal meeting, and Karneges wasn't given a specific time to show up. It was always a long shot. But one day, Karneges headed to their Los Angeles office, hoping to show off Infinity and rope in the Final Fantasy publisher.
When Karneges showed up, however, the offices were empty. Save for a spare Parasite Eve poster on the wall, it was a ghost town. Unbeknownst to him, they had recently moved. On the floor, however, was a phone. Karneges had been given a single phone number to contact the company with, and so he dialed the number.
The phone rang, but Karneges was the only one around to answer. He left the deserted office.
"I just happened to pick a moment right after they'd moved away," he said. "Getting a publisher was always a long shot, but I sometimes wonder what could have happened if I'd visited a day earlier."
He was never able to secure a proper meeting with the company.
Infinity ultimately signed with Crave Entertainment in 2001, a company who alternated between localizing quirky Japanese titles (Tokyo Xtreme Racer, Jade Cocoon) and crappy budget games (Casper's Scare School: Classroom Capers). They eventually went bankrupt in 2012.
It didn't help that Infinity's development was wrapping as Nintendo began rolling out the Game Boy Advance and flashy next-generation handheld RPGs like Golden Sun. It scared Crave off later that year, which left Karneges without many options. The team was emotionally crushed by the news.
"At the end, what's the point?" said writer Mark Yohalem. "Why would we pick up and do the last 10 percent of the game? We can't get a publisher, we can't sell it, we can't really distribute it."
The really tragic thing is that wrapping up the final 10 percent wouldn't even have been a major undertaking. Yohalem speculates it would have taken a few weeks.
"Nobody could bring themselves to do that last push," said Yohalem. "… It's like getting into a wet bathing suit. As long as you're swimming, you're totally fine. But if you get out, you dry off, and you put on your pants again, the concept of getting into a cold, wet bathing suit is repugnant. I guess in 15 years, the bathing suit dried out. Justin was ready to get back into it."
At the end, what's the point? Why would we pick up and do the last 10 percent of the game? We can't get a publisher, we can't sell it, we can't really distribute it. — Mark Yohalem
"Every few years we'd take a look at it and not make any progress," said Karneges.
One of the people who kept the game alive was audio engineer Mathew Valente, who published videos on his YouTube channel and granted interviews about Infinity's history. When pressed, Valente would assure fans they were always looking into ways to try and release the game. It's one reason the game's website has remained functional, updated, and online since 2000.
"We don't have the rights to it," said Valente to fans on YouTube in 2015.
Karneges told me that's not true, claiming the biggest obstacle was the team's willingness to continue working on the project.
"The only blocker to a free, unfinished release has been the team itself," he said. "We did not have consensus amongst ourselves to do this until last month."
In 2007, the possibility of releasing the game's ROM was raised on the official website, but due to Infinity being "completely obsolete by today's standards" and with no profit potential, "there is very little incentive to work on the project." Since then, nobody close to the project had touched Infinity until this year.
What changed? A simple idea: releasing the game without actually finishing it.
The version of Infinity distributed earlier this month is the same 90 percent complete version that was abandoned so many years ago, but the 10 percent that's missing isn't the final 10 percent of the game. It's actually various pieces of the game that needed final implementation, which means it's kind of broken. Consequently, what the developers released is a limited "preview" of the whole thing with the warning that playing beyond that might not be a very fun experience.
It's possible Infinity will get finished, but there are still no guarantees. To that end, the game's source code has been released into the wild. Other people can pick up where they left off.
"Maybe if we don't finish the game anytime soon, someone else can," the developers said in a statement on their website.
At this point, something is better than nothing. After 15 years, Infinity has been released.
"I can cross it off the bucket list," said Karneges.