ACE – Air Combat Emulator was one of my favorite flight simulations on the C64, although it can’t be really called a simulation as there are barely any physics. Somehow, I never really got into most of the then-famous and -popular flying games, while ACE managed to keep me entertained for a long while, and I kept coming back, time after time.
It gave me so many sweet memories: endless air battles with enemy fighters, the zillions of times when I'd run out of fuel and head toward the nearest runway, mostly landing like a glider, with a completely empty reservoir, cursing myself for allowing that to happen again and swearing that it was the last time, as well as my first broken joystick. More precisely, I'd broken joysticks before, but this was the first time that I had actually ripped the stick right off. I was chasing an enemy jet, trying to stay on his tail and pushing the stick forward like crazy, while pressing the joystick’s base with my left hand so that it didn’t detach from the desk. Suddenly, my right hand was loose and had gone too far from the joystick’s base. For a moment I wasn’t sure what had happened, thinking that the joystick had detached from the desk, but that was strange, because I was still holding the base. It took me several seconds to actually realise that I'd ripped off the stick. There were two tiny cables hanging down from it that had been connecting the fire button at the top of the stick to the base. Unforgettable.
I was very excited, years ago, when I found out that there was a PC version of the game; however, I could never get it to run until DOSBox 0.74 made it possible. I don’t mind the graphics being weaker than the C64 version, as long as the gameplay is up to scratch, but I am very disappointed to see that this version is so poor, with almost every feature that made the C64 version so great just completely missing.
Before speaking of what’s bad or missing, let’s talk about the kind of game that ACE is. As mentioned above, it is the sort of game that surely won’t appeal to you if you’re looking for a simulation, but definitely will if flying action is your preference. There are only a few minor things to take care of: First, you need to speed up to over a hundred and fifty to start rising; second, you have to bring your wheels up; third, if your plane is rising the speed will be slightly reduced, and if you are falling you will gain speed, and that’s about it. Wheels might be a slight bother; don’t pull them up before you’re in the air, and then pull them up fast because you will explode if flying too fast with your wheels down. After fighting for a while, you might need to land again for fuel and ammo. You must approach the runway from either east or west, flying very low and very slow. Once you are in runway mode again, enemy jets will disappear if they were around, and you won’t be able to rotate your plane. So, moving left or right will now be more or less lateral strafing. This way, everything is simplified and is by no means realistically simulated; you just need to lower your altitude and slow down so that you can bring down your wheels.
What’s the story? Some huge enemy force has invaded the USA and you are the only pilot left. What also remain are three AWAT fighters: futuristic jets with extraordinary flying and weapons capabilities. They have a strange name, since All-Weather-All-Terrain (AWAT) is a bit of an odd name for an airplane. Anyway, there are three runways left, with one fighter on each runway. Enemy tanks are slowly conquering the territory, while enemy fighters will fly towards you from the sea. As soon as you destroy one group of enemy fighters, a new one will appear until they are all destroyed. Perhaps it is easier to deal with the enemy fighters first, before facing land troops, since it is very hard to fight them all at the same time. After destroying all ground troops, the enemy fleet will appear. Once you've sunk the last enemy warship, the country is saved.
Sounds simple and fun, but the 'fun' part depends on the gameplay. As already mentioned, gameplay in the PC version is a horrible disappointment. The first and most important flaw is a bad and hardly playable flying system: You can’t fly freely as you would expect from a jet; if the jet is not properly aligned with the horizon, it won’t respond to the UP and DOWN controls. You have to rotate the jet to closely align, or be perpendicular to, the horizon. It is not possible to fly and rotate in any direction; you are limited to this reduced movement. Therefore it is not possible to chase enemy jets. At the same time, enemy jets can’t fly freely, either. They are around you, you see them on the radar, but when you see them in front of you, they will just pick one direction (left, right down or up) and fly by this direction on your screen regardless of your angle of rotation. Their position will change, but not the direction. It's impossible for them to fly freely as well, but instead they tend to fly using simplified yet unrealistic patterns. This totally kills what was the best part of the game: air duels. No chasing the enemy, losing them from your tail and trying to get a bead on them. You just have to rotate slightly when you see the enemy and hope that it will choose the direction that you are aiming towards. Then you just need to shoot and let them fly into your fire.
The rest of the gameplay doesn’t get any better: You do have different types of missiles, but it's hard to mark the target. Also, the C64 version had a wingman option, so your friend (or you, if you are quick) can control the aim in order to lock the targets and fire the missiles. Needless to say, this option is missing in the PC version.
One of the interesting features that brought attention to ACE is the air refueling. It is present here, but suffers from serious flaws: During the game, you will receive information of a tanker’s altitude and speed. You can see it on the map and fly towards it from behind. When you get close at the proper speed, you will see the tanker releasing the hose that you have to get attached to your jet in order to refuel. It’s interesting to try out. However, if you fly at a slightly higher speed than the tanker’s, you will start to lose it. You have to fly even faster in order to reach it. But then when you reach it and switch to refuel mode, it turns out that tanker is flying at the mentioned speed after all. So, you need to slow down, but slowing down also takes time, so crashing into the tanker is quite likely to result.
Graphics and sound are nothing outstanding. You have the option of choosing a summer, winter or night mission, but that only switches the CGA mode. ACE even featured some low-quality speech on C64, which was rare and barely possible back then. Naturally, they haven’t tried that here. There is only the boring noise representing the engine and a few beeps for fire, so it’s best to leave the sound off.
The game was meant to appeal to action fans but will surely fail to do so. If you got interested in the game because you are interested in flying sims, stay away. There might be some nostalgia value, but the gameplay is so bad that it's unlikely to properly recall the fun times some of you may have had, a long time ago.
Arrow keys – rotation
< / > - speed down / up
Enter – change weapons
Space – Fire weapon
U – wheels up/down
M - map
Dear Abandonia visitors: We are a small team that runs one of the largest DOS Games websites in the world. We have only 3 members of staff, but serve 450,000 users and have outgoing costs like any other top site for example: our servers, power, rent, programs, and staff. Abandonia is something special. It is a library of old games for you to download. It is like an old gaming arcade with all the old games in their original format. Abandonia is a place where you can find great old games and have fun four hours and years. To protect our independence, we are dependent of our friends using the site. We run on donations averaging around 6 USD (5 Euro). If everyone reading this gave the price of a cup of coffee, our fundraiser would be made easier. If Abandonia is useful to you, take one minute to keep it online for another year. Please help us forget fundraising and get back to Abandonia.