Few gave Zimbabwe much hope of even avoiding defeat to one of the favorites Algeria, but the Warriors came within eight minutes of an upset victory in the Group B opener in Franceville.
It took the second goal of the match for African Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez to salvage a 2-2 draw for his side, having opened the scoring in the 12th minute with a fine strike.
But the warning signs were already there for Algeria, with Khama Billiat having rattled its woodwork with a stunning volley from outside the penalty area.
Zimbabwe was quickly level after Kudakwashe Mahachi drove home a shot across Algeria goalkeeper Rais M'Bohli and continued to threaten on the counter attack.
On the half-hour mark, Algeria conceded a penalty through clumsy defending and Nyasha Mushekwi fired it home to put Zimbabwe 2-1 ahead.
The brilliant Billiat might have made it three after tricking his way through the Algeria defense early in the second half, but M'Bohli made the best of a series of superb saves.
Algeria, which reached the second round of the 2014 World Cup and has a squad with several players from the English Premier League, including Leicester City talisman Mahrez, also hit the woodwork twice in search of an equalizer.
M'Bohli made another crucial stop from substitute Cuthbert Malajila before Mahrez grabbed his late equalizer to a sigh of relief from his Desert Fox teammates and coach Georges Leekens.
It was certainly entertaining fare, but watched by a meager crowd in the south-eastern city.
Opponents of the Gabon government had called for a boycott of AFCON 2017, but the tournament opener, which saw the host Gabon held to a 1-1 draw by minnow Guinea-Bissau
was played before a near-capacity crowd in the capital Libreville.
Later Saturday, four-time winner Cameroon, was also held 1-1 by Burkina Faso, as the fancied teams have struggled to secure expected victories.
Sunday's second match saw a comfortable 2-0 win for Senegal over fellow African powerhouse Tunisia.
Senegal is the continent's top-ranked country and it showed against its opponents, with Liverpool's Sadio Mane putting his national side ahead from the penalty spot in the 10th minute.
The lead was doubled on the half hour mark as Kara Mbodji rose high to head home the second.
Tunisia had chances to get back into the game in the second half, with Anderlecht defender Mbodji smashing the ball against his own crossbar while attempting to clear, but it was well beaten at the final whistle.
The victory has left Senegal in a strong position in Group B, its next game Thursday against Zimbabwe with the other match a north African derby between Algeria and Tunisia.