Zero Profit Margins: The High Praise and Low Sales of Ace Combat Zero
Minor updates: 2/22/2023 // Originally published 08/31/2018
What do you remember whenever you think of a Spanish guitar arrangement, flashy squadron intros, and a certain Round Table? Because if you remembered Ace Combat Zero, you must be one of the estimated 782,000 proud owners of this classic title.
Coming back to that number, 782,000 units sold. That's the second worse selling mainline Ace Combat title, only behind the now infamously cheesy Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation. This is an odd situation, as the game also received very good reviews at launch. Gamespot gave it a 7.9/10; users of Gamespot gave it an 8.7/10. We have to ask ourselves why did such a loved and greatly received title sell so little.
Remember, this game tends to be the benchmark of storytelling and the example that many longtime fans of the franchise use to describe what an Ace Combat title should be. It has one of the best soundtracks out of the franchise, if not, the best. The vibes that it gives tend to remind me of Area 88, a well-known manga/anime that is famous for its take on aerial warfare.
These vibes mainly come from the protagonist, as he is a mercenary fighting a war for money, just like some of the characters based at Area 88. The interactions you have with the enemy squadrons, the allied units and his "Buddy", Larry "Pixy" Foulke are also very reminiscent of some of the conversations that the mercenaries had over the battlefields of Area 88.
Colorful liveries and very identifiable enemy ace squadrons are also something that sets this game apart from the others. Usually, the standard Ace Combat titles focus on one or two main enemy ace units that you fight against several times throughout the story. In the case of Zero, you face multiple ace squadrons, each of them with their own identifiable leader and personality. Some of them are just more skilled enemy units with enhanced AI, others take specific strategies and apply them in battle; for example, the use of beyond visual range tactics by Schnee Squadron, the baiting/swarming strategies used by Schwarze or even Gelb's backwards firing missiles, etc.
Each of these squadrons also present themselves before entering the battlefield with a very identifiable and trademark feature of Ace Combat Zero, the squadron introductions; and who can forget that you fight different enemy aces depending on your actions on the battlefield thanks to the Ace Style Gauge.
This bar is a feature unique to Ace Combat Zero that has been forgotten in future titles. It presents a factor of choice and a bit of a connection with Cipher as you decide whether you kill neutral enemy units or you let them live. Decisions that are intrinsically moral in nature, if you do not look at the score and credit benefits that are gained whenever you destroy neutral targets. This bar has three states: Mercenary, Soldier, and Knight. Mercenary is attained by killing everything in sight, even the neutral targets; Soldier is attained by sparing some of the neutral targets but still killing some of them, and Knight is attained by sparing all neutral targets. Each represents a playing style and indicates your morality, much like the karma meters we see on some other games. A mechanic that was inherited from Ace Combat 5 were the Wingman Commands. This time around, the commands received several improvements that made them way more satisfying when compared to the original counterpart. Ace Combat 5 only let you decide from 4 options: Disperse, Attack, Cover and a Special Weapons toggle for your AI wingmen. All of these were given by pressing the corresponding button on the D-pad. Ace Combat Zero's version adds another layer to the commands by letting you decide which types of targets your wingman would attack, which was a choice between air, all and ground. This mechanic was enough to make you feel like you were putting some strategy whenever you have a command, even if the effect was negligible sometimes. All of these factors contribute to giving Ace Combat Zero a unique feel when compared to the other two PlayStation 2 titles (Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies and Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War) but both of these titles stumped Ace Combat Zero in terms of sales (2,640,000 for AC04 and 1,802,000 for AC5).
One very plausible reason is that this title was launched just as the PlayStation 2 era was coming to a close, with the release of the much anticipated PlayStation 3 on the horizon. Many players could have thought about the upcoming launch of that console and decided to skip this title to save money for the shiny new toys that awaited them on the next generation. Another plausible reason is that, even in terms of gameplay and looks, it is very similar/takes much from Ace Combat 5; such as the flight physics, 3D models, textures, cockpits, etc. This does not ignore the improvements that Zero made such as the boresight mechanic and graphical improvements made to the replay viewer and to the game engine in general, but the average user could overlook improvements. Ace Combat Zero transcended its lackluster sales thanks to the spirit that the title possesses. The romance of battle and the scale of conflict in a truly bitter war in which a country ended up killing their own people under nuclear flames to stop a coalition that was about to reach into their homeland. The enemy aces reflecting heroes of old, knights and mercenaries fighting head to head in supersonic jousting. The birth of the Demon Lord of the Round Table and the fallen companion that succumbed to evil in search of salvation for humanity.
The fans are another factor that made Zero a true success, even if it was a flop in the sales department. A game that made many dream of that idealized life that a fighter pilot would have, inspiring many artists such as Nassault in their short fan made film. Ace Combat Zero is a game that will always be in my heart, that's for sure, as it will be in the hearts of all of those that played it and understood what made it shine.
About the Author
Santiago "Cubeboy" Cuberos
Longtime aviation fanatic with particular preference towards military aviation and its history. Said interests date back to the early 2000s, leading into his livelong dive into civil and combat flight simulators. He has been involved in a few communities, but only started being active around the mid 2010s. Joined as a Spanish to English translator in 2017, he has been active as a writer and content manager ever since. Twitter | Discord: Cubeboy #9034