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Kien, the most-delayed video game in history, released after 22 years
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Kien, the most-delayed video game in history, released after 22 years

In 2002, a group of five Italians made the local news: they were going to be the first company in the country to develop a game for Nintendo’s popular portable, the Game Boy Advance. The cadre pulled together a few hundred euros and some computers to prepare for the project. They had no experience making games. They didn’t even have a programmer. All they had was a love for video games, a shared hatred of working for bosses and endless optimism.

For the next two years, the group worked away. Late nights were common and the team barely took any time off. It was a grueling time, but they were determined to make an ambitious game with complex features. Its name was Kien. If you haven’t heard of it, that’s because it never came out – until now. The action platformer didn’t see the light of day until this year, by which time most of the original team had long since moved on. Only one member of the group of five remained: game designer, Fabio Belsanti, who never lost belief in the project.

Kien currently holds the record for the most-delayed video game in history – 22 years eclipses the 15-year journey of the infamous Duke Nukem Forever, a shooter that was delayed for so long that it became a meme. After all this time, people can now actually buy Kien, on a Game Boy Advance cartridge.

The game begins by asking the player to choose between its two protagonists – a warrior and a priestess. The warrior can use a sword to kill his enemies, and there are a lot of them. I died repeatedly in that first level. Armour-clad skulls abound, and they revive after a short while. You can’t let your guard down in Kien, which may be why Belsanti likens it to a primordial Dark Souls. It’s reminiscent of that one oddball game you took a chance on as a kid, maybe because the artwork looked rad, or maybe it was the only thing left on the shelves of your local movie rental place.

Last man standing … Fabio Belsanti, game developer holding a copy of the game and a Game Boy Advance.View image in fullscreen

A multidecade release schedule was never the plan, of course. The game had been finished years ago, and multiple publishers expressed interest in it. Having chosen one, the winds shifted for Belsanti after Kien’s chosen publisher conducted some market analysis that determined his game was too risky to back. At the time, each Game Boy cartridge cost $15 to produce.

“The amount of capital required just to print the initial copies was daunting, especially since the chances of commercial success were low, based on industry trends at the time,” Belsanti says.

But despite this setback, Belsanti held on to hope. He had attended university in Tuscany, where he spent a year diving into archives of unpublished 15th-century books. These were thrilling tales about a mercenary company in the early Italian Renaissance, involving knights, soldiers and squires – but due to their age, these stories were essentially lost to time. Kien is inspired by these tales, by the unusual graphical style of early Japanese games, and by action games such as Turrican. Despite its age, Belsanti considers Kien to be a pioneer of sorts, akin to games like Dark Souls. The nonlinear fantasy game is unforgiving, but players are rewarded with a compelling story about a lost civilisation.

As Kien languished in development limbo, the company Belsanti founded, AgeOfGames, had to find a way to survive. “The capitalist system is a ruthless meat grinder,” he says, “to which I have adapted out of necessity, but I do not like it.” The company found a niche in educational games. One of their biggest successes so far has been ScacciaRischi, a platforming game developed for Italy’s INAIL, a nonprofit group dedicated to helping people prevent injury and disease at work. It’s been played by tens of thousands of students, and has tackled topics such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

AgeOfGames might have continued down this path perpetually, but a shift in the gaming industry suddenly made Kien a possibility again. Within the last five years, a boom in the retro game scene has revived interest in ageing hardware and rare games, which can fetch thousands on the resale market. Not only have the costs of producing GBA cartridges gone down, companies have also risen to meet this demand.

“I believe we are in a phase similar to [the revival of] vinyl or cassettes for music,” Belsanti muses, “a return to previous, more primitive forms of the medium driven by nostalgia from the generations who lived those eras, and curiosity by those who came after such technology.”

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Kien’s new publisher, Incube8, specialises in producing games for classic consoles – and it’s backing Kien. The game is now being sold in an eye-catching translucent gray cartridge. The game box comes with a multipage manual, too, a pack-in that’s practically disappeared from modern games.

“On a romantic level, the thought of releasing the game on its original console is simply magical,” Belsanti says. “To see Kien come to life on the very platform it was designed for is a dream come true.”

Already, AgeOfGames is working on a spiritual successor. Much as he did more than 20 years ago, Belsanti has hope that the public will see the value in a game like Kien, even if it doesn’t have advanced graphics or fancy bells and whistles.

“The power of the video game experience can, not always but in some cases, be much more intense and powerful in old video games made with limited graphical and technical resources,” Belsanti says. “I will never forget the emotion I felt looking at the cover art of my Philips Videopac or Spectrum ZX or Commodore 64 video games, which had nothing to do with the pixels that appeared on the screen. My imagination created a bridge between the artwork and the pixels, and filled every limit and absence with fantastic stories.”

Source: theguardian.com