Translation/Analysis: Ace Combat 25th Anniversary Reflection Special
Updated: Sep 22, 2021
Project ACES recently featured a special program where both old and young staff members reflected on 25 years of Ace Combat games, discussing the past, present, and future of the series. To spare the audience and myself from reading/translating the whole 1 hour+ transcript, I will just be doing an overview as well as point out things that I found interesting. Catch the program and follow along here: https://youtu.be/FA5RgsXHHWw
MC: Aozora Sorano (Japanese idol with a name that literally translates to “Bluesky Skyfield.” Chosen since her name fits the series so well)
MC: Manabu Shimomoto (Ace Combat 7 Producer)
Kazutoki Kono (Ace Combat Series Brand Director)
Masato Kanno (Ace Combat 7 Art Director)
Kosuke Itomi (Ace Combat 7 Narrative Director)
Takuya Iwasaki (CEO/Managing Director of ILCA Inc)
Akira Yasui (Manager of game development at ILCA Inc)
Makoto Sekiya (Producer at ILCA Inc)
*The Ace Combat team had mentioned many times before that they had planned for celebrations during the actual 25th anniversary last year, but were hindered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, events like the live orchestra concert were delayed to the so-called “25th anniversary overtime” in 2021.
Ace Combat (Air Combat) Through Ace Combat 04
The program starts with a bit of a bombshell, with Sorano nonchalantly stating that in 2021, the series as a whole (and across various platforms) had shipped 17 million copies. How those 17 million is split between the games and whether that included Infinity is not revealed, but is still an impressive feat regardless.
Sorano then introduces the first four games, giving a brief overview of the highlights of each game, similar to what was already covered in the Famitsu special last year.
Iwasaki then reveals that he joined Namco at the same time as Kono, and participated in developing the first Ace Combat game as well as taking charge of game design for Ace Combat 2 and directing Ace Combat 3. He talked about how graphical limitations of the first game restricted them to making disjointed mission situations, but improvements for the second game allowed them to create a cohesive world view. They first created a world map and discussed what kind of landscapes and history would exist, essentially giving context to the different missions. Kanno joins the discussion, adding that Iwasaki asked him to make various assets and artwork with the materials he had, and doing that over and over again eventually led to the setting and world of Ace Combat 04 and 5.
The discussion then shifts to Ace Combat 3, the “problem game,” as Iwasaki picks up a X-49 model that will be sold by Kotobukiya later this year. Iwasaki explained that their goal was to expand even more on world building and depict a drama-filled story. There were plans for CG cutscenes as well, but the cost of making those for all scenarios was too much and led to Production I.G. making anime scenes. Amusingly, he also talked about how he negotiated with his superiors to have the game on multiple CDs since fitting all the content on one would have been impossible, even using Final Fantasy as an excuse.
Itomi is then brought into the discussion, since he worked on quite a few of the video transmissions and cutscenes, though the others jokingly commented he was a “victim.” Turns out he went to the same university as Iwasaki, and was “taken away” to work on the project, despite wanting to work on “cute” things (I guess he finally got his wish when he designed Nugget for Ace Combat Infinity). Interestingly, Kono and Yasui also went to the same school (Kobe Design University).
Iwasaki and Kono then talked about working back then on Ace Combat and Ridge Racer respectively, and how they were alike in that they often poked their nose into something and gave their opinion/demanded better quality. Kono brings up a funny anecdote where Iwasaki was watching him checking Ridge Racer Type 4’s graphics, then ran away screaming. When he asked Iwasaki what was going on later, Iwasaki replied, “Namco’s de facto standard has increased again!” and went back to improve Ace Combat’s quality. Even before he became directly involved in the series, it seems Kono had a hand in making the games better.
Ace Combat 5 Through Ace Combat Assault Horizon
Sorano continued to briefly talk about the highlights of the next couple of games, with 5, Zero, 6, and Assault Horizon. She then asked about “Aces at War,” an exclusive book bundled with the special edition of Assault Horizon that chronicled the stories of the previous games set in Strangereal. ILCA Inc’s Sekiya actually had a hand in the creation of this book, since he initially proposed the concept. He also revealed that this was the first time he worked with the Project ACES team, assisting in the interviews and editing (Check out the translations of those here). The interviews with JASDF personnel, Project ACES members, and Hibiki Yoshizaki (future cinematics director for AC7) led to further collaboration in Infinity and 7. ILCA’s Yasui was also asked to create the Stonehenge papercraft model (can be seen in this interview) that was part of the Assault Horizon Special Edition as well as some of the CG artwork inside “Aces at War.”
Kanno also talked about how “Aces at War” is a pretty special book that had a large impact on newer members, with Shimomoto chiming in that he read it to study up on the series, and how it was like a textbook. Inspired by the book, Shimomoto reached out to Sekiya to make the most recent “Aces at War 2019” but apparently this was “hell.” Kono said that every time they made “Aces at War,” they had to dig up all of their hard disks and was such a pain that he remarked “let’s not make another one.” However, Kanno mentioned the president of Bandai Namco Entertainment said to make more books like that, and Kono replied “well I guess we have no choice.”
Ace Combat Infinity and Ace Combat 7
Sorano finally introduces Ace Combat Infinity and 7, and reveals that Skies Unknown had sold 3 million copies across all platforms, which is one million higher than last year. Though there are a fair amount of fans that bought multiple copies of the game for different platforms, limited editions, etc. this is a pretty insane feat.
The topic then shifts to how Ace Combat is a game about fighter jets, and how they fuss over both real-life and fictional aircraft. Kanno reflects on some of the fictional designs and describes Ace Combat 3 as a little more unique, with Kei Yoshimizu creating initial concepts that were polished up by Production I.G. They then talk about the XFA-27 which was one of the first fictional jets that appeared in the series, designed by a veteran Namco artist, Yabuki. Kanno talks about how the aircraft was a reflection of the trends of the era, but Kono seems to remember this differently, saying “Kanno and Yabuki would change a set design on their own accord, claiming it was cooler.” As a result, Namco had to create a special stamp that, once used, forbade any further changes to the item in question. These kinds of episodes where Kanno keeps implementing design changes are well known by now, but it’s still amusing to see that he’s been doing this since the earliest days of the series.
Another element that they talked about are the cinematic cutscenes. Itomi explains that Ace Combat is a different kind of game where despite being a game about flying and shooting down targets, the story often takes place on the ground, and how they use different methods in each game to enhance that story. The main example used was how Zero used live action actors with CG backgrounds while 7 was the opposite (CG characters with real-world backgrounds), with Itomi commenting he has an urge to try something new with every game.
As a result of this approach to the cutscenes for 7, ILCA’s Sekiya and others had to do a lot of location hunting and exploring on Google Maps before going out to shoot since they did not have set locations in mind from the start. Sekiya explained that as Story Director Katabuchi finished up story scenarios, he had to work really hard to find a real world location, and in one funny instance, was at a loss since he didn’t know what to do for the destruction of satellites in space. Fortunately, other members talked some sense into him and made that with CG instead.
Ace Combat 7’s Real-world Locations
One of my favorite parts of the special was when Sekiya was showcasing all the real-world locations that they filmed backgrounds for, and how he presented it. He actually created a pretty detailed itinerary on how to actually visit all these places, titled “A 6 Day Strangereal Journey I want to go on once COVID-19 Settles Down.” I’ll spare the travel details, but here are the 12 real-world locations and where they are used in the game:
1. SOMETIME Jazz Bar (Cutscene with Mihaly and others in the bar)
When it came to filming the actual scene, all props were brought/made, including the Erusean flag. However, Shimomoto revealed that he destroyed it afterwards, to the dismay of everyone.
2. Izu Oshima (Tyler Island cutscene at beginning of “Homeward”)
The teddy bear that Rosa holds was actually made by Kanno’s wife and was originally just like any old stuffed animal, but parts were ripped off and burned for use in the scene.
3. Airpark JASDF Hamamatsu Air Base Museum (J79 engine shot from opening movie)
4. Kawasaki Heavy Industries Robot Division (ISEV Drone Factory)
This area is not open to the general public, but for prospective customers of robot technology.
5. Kitakyushu Airport Star Flyer Hangar (Mihaly’s test hangar)
This is another location off-limits to the general public, and is often empty since it’s an emergency-use hangar.
6. AQUASTUDIO (444 Base scene with Avril and Tabloid meet)
The underground areas of the studio was used, but this is another area that cannot be viewed by the general public.
7. DDH-183 “Izumo” (Exterior and interior of the Admiral Andersen)
Naturally, getting on the Izumo (now) aircraft carrier is extremely difficult, but it is interesting that a much smaller ship is used to represent a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. According to Sekiya, the composite cutscene of Avril on the ship was the very first real-life location they shot, thus beginning their long journey of finding and filming backgrounds.
8. Del Mar Studio (Scene of Mihaly in bed)
This is another studio that the general public cannot go inside. The GAZE magazine shown was actually created for the scene and amusingly, Itomi lets everyone know that the blankets and pillow were kept and saved, unlike the Erusean flag.
9. El Mirage Dry Lake (All scenes of Avril, Mihaly, Schroeder on dry lakes)
The next few locations are most interesting, at least for me, as they happen to be within driving distance from where I live currently. Sekiya explains that for the opening shot of the game, Yoshizaki stood in for Avril and then moved so that the CG character could be placed instead. The RV used by the team was also made its way into the cutscenes , which was interesting too.
10. Mira Loma Detention Center (444 Air Base holding cells, exterior)
11. Mojave Air and Space Port (444 Air Base hangars)
On a regular day, you won’t be able to get onto the flight line or hangars themselves, but they do hold “Plane Crazy Saturdays” from time to time, where the general public can come to view some of the planes at the airport. I’ve been to Mojave many times to catch sights of some unique aircraft, but didn’t know the hangars were used in the cutscenes, so I’ll have to make the trip again soon.
12. Yanks Air Museum (Boneyard from opening scene)
The crown jewel in my opinion is the boneyard of Yanks Air Museum in Chino, CA. Sleuthing by some fans when Ace Combat 7 was about to come revealed that many of the shots from the opening movie were taken at this museum, and I was able to visit it recently. The staff says it’s usually not open to the public, but I was able to ask the staff to go in and recreate some of the shots (check out my thread here). Kono actually mentioned seeing a fan that visited the location, so perhaps they saw my tweets. Another aspect that drew the team to this location was a peculiar image of Yellow 13’s Su-37 posted on the entrance to the “Starfighter Hangar,” and Kanno said he felt a sense of destiny.
Other miscellaneous locations that they visited included various JASDF air bases, and JASDF Iruma Air Base’s hangars were used as models for Ace Combat 7.
If you do end up visiting any of these sites, be sure to follow all rules and regulations since you do not want to trespass, and some of these places have special requirements in order to get in.
New Game(s) in Development
Thus ends the reflection portion, and Kono reveals the true reason for the special was to announce that a new Ace Combat “project” is in development. He explains that the current staff will participate in this new project, but because of the increasing number of fans and how the team “is starting to understand what the fans like,” the small team is no longer capable of meeting those expectations and is looking to massively expand the Ace Combat team. I’m honestly a little skeptical as to whether the team really understands what fans want, but hopefully the various survey results and feedback on both Japanese and overseas social media will help them to make the next game a success.
Kono hopes that by now, the audience understands that the members in the room have deeply been involved in the Ace Combat series already, and announces a partnership with ILCA Inc to create new games. I for one was not aware of ILCA and how its various members have already had an impact on the franchise, but the program really informed me on their contributions, from the genesis of “Aces at War” and various work on art and cutscenes for 7. It’s also nice to know that the members like Iwasaki are not total outsiders to the series, having directed some of the early titles before Kono got involved, and it seems like it will be a good working relationship. ILCA has also worked on some high profile games like Nier, Dragon Quest, and are working on Pokemon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, so they aren't amateurs either. Here’s also an article that gives a short rundown of ILCA Inc and some other games they have assisted with.
One thing to note on this screenshot is that it says “New Series Joint Development Project.” That’s right, they’re not only planning a new game, but a whole series of Ace Combat games. There has been much talk on social media about whether they will keep making games in the Strangereal universe, make a series of spinoffs, or even remake/remaster older titles, but nothing other than the fact that they are making a new Ace Combat game has been revealed so I guess we’ll have to wait and see. However, in order to make “what the fans like,” just working with ILCA is not enough and are looking to hire new employees, particularly young people, so that (hopefully) more content-rich games can be created and older staff can pass the torch to the next generation.
Checking out their recruitment page, they want talented people who are passionate about Ace Combat, and have various openings for a project manager, game designers, engineers, technical/3D artists, and UI artists, but you’ll probably need to be proficient in Japanese which will be a barrier to most.
Also of note is that this new project will be created in Unreal Engine 5, allowing for next-generation graphics and workflows. Hopefully, Project ACES’ experience with UE4 for Ace Combat 7’s development has given them a much steadier footing, and working together with ILCA will likely further stabilize development.
New Content for Ace Combat 7
At the end of the program, announcements about various new content for Ace Combat 7 was announced. First came this trailer, showing off a free update that will include JASDF special liveries for the F-15J, F-2, and F-4E and add more BGM for multiplayer maps. These songs were selected back in June as part of a retweet campaign by fans and include the following:
This free update will be coming August 31, so keep an eye on your update notifications.
Shimomoto also announces that there are two paid DLCs that will be coming soon, but refrains from giving any details. However, when Kono asks if these will have new aircraft, Shimomoto confirms these are indeed, new aircraft DLCs. These will most likely include 3 planes each as it has been for the past, and probably have additional content such as more skins and emblems.
The theme of the new aircraft DLCs will be interesting to see, since there was a brief shot of a F-18 in the Advanced Super Hornet configuration in the new trailer. Pure speculation here, but maybe we’ll see it with a F-15EX variant along with it as part of a fighter “glow up” pack?
I’m really curious to see how the Advanced Super Hornet will translate to gameplay, since many of the upgrades to this F-18 don’t really have an effect in the arcade-y mechanics of Ace Combat. A wide-area display in the cockpit and other advanced avionics will probably not do anything but give the player a cool new cockpit to look at (although it’s mostly useless due to the low FOV). The conformal tanks increase range, but there’s no fuel gage in 7 like in Ace Combat 2 or anything. However, it may allow it to carry higher amounts of missiles and special weapons since one of the pros of CFTs is to free up more weapon stations. Addition of more LO treatments might make you harder to lock on to, but this will likely be unnoticeable in campaign and not that useful in multiplayer. It’ll likely be a bit more higher performing than the vanilla F-18F, but I guess the biggest differentiation will be what special weapons it will be carrying. With only a centerline Enclosed Weapons Pod and no other pylons in the shot from the trailer, I doubt it will have the 8AAM. It’ll likely have XSDB to make it a better ground pounder in missions with multiple scattered ground targets.
Either way, there’s more content still coming for Ace Combat 7 that will keep fans engaged, at least for a little while.
The program ends with Kono introducing some new merchandise, including more shirts and jackets from Alpha Industries Japan and goods on the Asobistore. Unfortunately these cannot be bought outside of Japan as usual (wouldn’t be the case in a world with no boundaries). What can be bought outside of Japan are the Kotobukiya snap-fit models, including the new X-49 Night Raven model that will go on sale later this year.
The various staff members then give their final thoughts, looking back at their experiences, thanking the fans, and pledging to continue to work on the upcoming game(s), asking for continued support.
Overall, it was a really neat program that shed light on more behind the scenes anecdotes, introduced ILCA Inc’s past and future involvement of the series, and just a celebration of how far the series has come and how it still has a bright future ahead.
Author and Translator: TaskForce 23
Japanese to English Translation