Star Fox might not be one of Nintendo's biggest-selling franchises, but it certainly has a passionate following; the first SNES game was revolutionary in that it harnessed the Super FX chip to create a convincing 3D world, while subsequent titles both refined the format and took it in new directions. However, since 2016's Star Fox Zero, the franchise has sadly remained dormant.
Even so, any item related to the genesis of Star Fox is likely to attract attention, and we were recently informed that one of the first-ever pieces of development artwork relating to the game was very nearly thrown away.
We received an email from a person called Chris Stokes who claimed to have the first-ever concept drawing of the Star Fox cast. "It was a gift from Shigeru Miyamoto to Jez San of Argonaut," the email continued. "I'm not sure if it is by Miyamoto or Takaya Imamura, as it isn't signed."
We duly passed on the contact email for San, who founded Argonaut, the UK developer that assisted Nintendo in the creation of the original Star Fox – the company also designed the aforementioned Super FX chip. San confirmed to Stokes that it was indeed a legitimate piece of concept artwork, and that it was gifted to him many years ago.
Stokes explains how the art came to be in his possession:
I am a Linux systems engineer and I was once employed at PKR, a gambling company owned by Jez San. When I joined the company my boss was Jeremy Longley, who founded Lost Toys, and previously worked with Peter Molyneux at Bullfrog. As he was showing me around on my first day, there were a load of boxes in the corner, and in the boxes was the picture. I knew it was of Star Fox and I obviously knew of Jez and Argonaut's involvement in the game, and with the Super FX chip in the cart. Jeremy told me that the boxes were all Jez's stuff and that the drawing was gifted to Jez by Miyamoto, and as far as he knew, it was the first concept art for Star Fox.
Fast forward about six years, and PKR was in trouble. Stokes continues:
The company was about to be wound up. We received a message that everything on the 5th floor (now largely empty) was going to be thrown in the bin and that if anyone wanted anything, they should go and get it. I knew what was there and so I rushed up and essentially stole it, or rescued it, however you want to look at it. I kept my ownership of this picture a secret until I could no longer bear it and wanted to know definitely where it had come from and what it was. That was when I emailed you, still not wishing to fess up to Jez about it for fear of him wanting it back. So I bit the bullet and mailed Jez about it.
I didn't get too much info out of him other than the fact that he's not bothered that I have it. He added that "Most likely its Eguchi who drew that. Check out the Star Fox credits and it’ll be the main designer." Takaya Imamura was the main GFX designer on the game, Eguchi was the director, and Miyamoto was the producer, so it's unclear who did the drawing.
The only other bit of info I got out of Jez was this: "I think Dylan brought it back with him from one of his trips to Japan for me. They also gave me a caricature sketch of me. I don’t know where that one is either."
'Dylan' is, of course, Dylan Cuthbert, an Argonaut staffer who relocated to Nintendo's Japanese HQ to work on Star Fox and eventually became a full-time Nintendo employee – he later founded Q-Games, which would work on Star Fox 64 3D.
We spoke to Dylan about the art, and he said it was indeed the work of Imamura, even going as far as to show the artist the image to confirm this:
Imamura said that it was one of the first pictures he drew – he drew quite a few back then of course, and Nintendo probably has them archived. I think this is the one I looked at when I named Fox, Slippy and Peppy (Imamura had already named Falco – he wanted an F-Zero style name).
That picture might be originally mine actually, that’s what I’m thinking. It would have been in a box with the other disks and source code. I’ve been searching for someone who maybe found a box of stuff like this at Argonaut after I left that had my old disks in it – I'm looking for the source code for X.
Sadly, when we relayed this information to Stokes, he confirmed that he only took the artwork from the box at PKR, and the rest was, to his knowledge, destroyed – which means that the source code to X, a hugely important game in Nintendo's history, is unfortunately lost forever.
Still, at least Stokes was able to save the Star Fox artwork from destruction – the first-ever drawing of the team of famous Arwing pilots. Cuthbert has even kindly offered to get the artwork signed by Imamura – which means the question of who created it will never need to be asked again.