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Science Behind the Fiction: Would the Star Fox crew make good pilots?

Contributed by
Jun 19, 2019

By the time the '90s came along, home video gaming was in full swing. The Nintendo Entertainment System had broken through the Great Gaming Crash of '83 and released a successful successor with the Super Nintendo. The Sega Genesis had been released in the United States just one year prior, setting off the first true console war. Kids everywhere were putting their chips down and fighting over which console was superior.

This era showed us the first signs of a shift in the industry. New competitors were entering the arena and boasting some new technology. Nintendo, for its part, was leaning into a certain type of gaming experience, one that was palatable to the whole family. And it was innovating in a way only Nintendo knows how.

These elements coalesced in one of Nintendo's most beloved games, not just of the '90s, but of all time: Star Fox 64.

Star Fox 64 was the culmination of a familiar and well-loved franchise, new graphics capabilities, and innovative technology with its bundled rumble pack, the first haptic feedback available for a home video game system.

Players were led on an interplanetary adventure to avenge the death of Fox McCloud's father and defeat the evil Andross. Players piloted a sleek spaceship (an Arwing), playing as the anthropomorphized Fox McCloud with the help of his three anthropomorphized animal pilot companions: Peppy Hare, Slippy Toad, and Falco Lombardi.

If you think about it too hard (as we do), these characters, beloved by so many, leave one to wonder at the relative advantages of these anthropomorphic animal species as it pertains to piloting a starship. So, which animal would be the best pilot?

FALCO LOMBARDI

The seemingly obvious choice when it comes to a natural ability to pilot any flying craft is Falco. Surely, a flighted animal would have the requisite skills built in for successfully navigating a craft through space.

It's clear that Falco is descended from an avian species, but it seems his ability for independent flight has atrophied. Star Fox 64 doesn't give us a clear indication, as the character spends the game inside his Arwing and his participation in Super Smash Bros. includes an impressive vertical leap but no true flying ability.

It makes sense, as flight is an expensive trait to maintain and, in the absence of predators, birds tend to lose the ability to fly. It's reasonable to assume that Falco is a member of a dominant species, one which uses technology to rid itself of natural predators, so there's simply no reason to take to the skies. But that doesn't mean his brain isn't still wired for flight, even if his body no longer has the need.

Assuming that's the case, Falco would have an advantage over most other pilots, not only because of his innate ability to navigate the skies but because of his eyes.

Falcons can see eight times better than humans.

Falcons can sight prey from more than three kilometers off. All of this means that Falco would see any looming threats well before his compatriots and have the skills to navigate them. Despite the loss of his natural flying ability, he'd be an incredibly useful member of any assault team.

PEPPY HARE

A member of the original Star Fox team, Peppy serves as a mentor, offering years of experience and a special connection to the mission second only to Fox McCloud himself. Despite his name, Peppy is actually a rabbit, a distinct species to the hare.

Rabbits live primarily underground, meaning he has no innate proclivities toward the skies. But that doesn't mean Peppy is without benefit to the team.

A rabbit, if it maintained certain physiological characteristics, would make an excellent addition to any team due to their stereoscopic vision. Because of the position of their eyes, and the degree to which they protrude from their heads, rabbits enjoy nearly 360 degrees of vision.

This is an important trait in the constant battle to avoid predation. While humans and other predators have binocular vision and the benefit of 3-dimensional spacing, rabbits are capable of seeing attacks from in front, behind, and above.

In order to take full advantage of Peppy's particular biology, he should have an Arwing equipped with a domed cockpit, allowing him to see in every direction. With that, he'd be able to call out attacks that might be missed by other pilots.

As an added bonus, rabbits are incapable of vomiting, saving him from any concern while executing the famous Star Fox barrel roll (actually an aileron roll, but who's checking) and eliminating the need for barf bags onboard his ship.

SLIPPY TOAD

Another misnomer in the Star Fox naming convention, Slippy Toad is actually a frog. Depending on his species, Slippy has the potential to be an irreplaceable member of the team.

Most frogs have their eardrums on the surface of their bodies, but the concave-eared torrent frog of central China is built differently.

Their unique ear structure allows them to hear in the ultrasonic range. Researchers believe this to be an adaptation to a noisy environment. While the frogs are capable of hearing sounds in the audible and ultrasonic range, they can filter out the sounds they're looking for, effectively tuning out background noise and honing in on specific signals.

Moreover, they are able to locate the source of specific sounds with 99 percent accuracy.

Given this ability, Slippy would have a unique outlook on any battlefield scenario, not only able to alert his comrades to invisible threats but able to locate them with pinpoint accuracy.

FOX McCLOUD

The supporting cast of the Star Fox squad all have their reasons for joining the fight and an array of special abilities to help win the day. But none of them are better equipped than Fox McCloud himself.

Fox has the benefit of vengeance, the desire to avenge his father. Besides, he's the protagonist and the window through which players experience the game. Even with all of that aside, he is, perhaps, the best equipped to lead the squadron to victory.

Red foxes are excellent predators, existing in unforgiving climates, surviving on their wiles alone. And that success is due, in large part, to their ability to see the Earth's electromagnetic field.

Researchers spent two years observing 84 foxes and their hunting habits. They discovered some pretty interesting behaviors. Of nearly 600 mousing jumps, the peculiar pounce for which foxes are famous, the vast majority occurred at 20 degrees to magnetic north.

The researchers found that, when foxes jumped at this angle of attack, they were successful 73 percent of the time. An attack from the exact opposite direction was successful 60 percent of the time. Attacking from any other direction was successful only 18 percent of the time.

This led researchers to speculate that something unusual and interesting was happening. Namely, foxes are using the Earth's electromagnetic field to triangulate the exact position of their prey. Foxes aren't alone in using magnetic fields to their benefit, but they are the first known animal that uses this sense to hunt.

The idea is that foxes use both sound and this special electromagnetic sense to dial in on an exact location. Precisely how this works isn't yet known, but the results are hard to argue with. The difference between 18 percent and 73 percent success rates is more than statistically significant.

Targeting acumen like that would allow Fox to dial in on incoming threats both to avoid them and take them out. It's unlikely the creators of Star Fox 64 chose the crew intentionally for their specific abilities, but this combination of flight skill, vision, hearing, and targeting ability makes the Star Fox gang a veritable Voltron of combat ability.

The next time Andross decides to take on a planet, he'd do well to choose one with less impressive heroes.

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