Star Fox 64: The Voices That Echo Through The Lylat System
The original Star Fox was released in North America on the Super Nintendo back on March 26th, 1993. A huge success, it cemented itself as one of the flagship franchises for Nintendo. Four years later, on June 30th of 1997, the sequel and reboot Star Fox 64 entered the scene. Lauded for its gameplay, multiple mission paths, and the use of the newly created Rumble Pak, the game was another success for the Star Fox name. The other big achievement it had was also groundbreaking. It brought to life the characters that had formally just made garbled noises. It gave them all personality like never before.
For Nintendo in particular, this was huge. Mario had said some whoops and wah-hoos, but Fox McCloud and his crew were speaking in full-blown sentences, one of the first games on the console to have that stamp. I loved every second of it. The characters were so perfectly cast and the story, although essentially a retelling of the SNES game and somewhat thin, was a blast to watch and play though. I would spend my weekends renting a Nintendo 64 from Blockbuster, along with a copy of Star Fox 64, and do nothing but attempt to save the Lylat System over and over again.
Now, nearly twenty years and several hit-and-miss sequels later, another Star Fox game is around the corner. Much like the 3DS remake of the 64 classic, the soon-to-be-released Star Fox: Zero has many of the original cast members reprising their roles again, all of whom were absent for the previous entries in the long standing series. Through the magic of the internet and a lot of digging, I was able to contact all of the original voice actors from Star Fox 64 and ask them about their respective careers and lives.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
“I have always loved radio and TV. I had a reel-to-reel tape deck as a little kid and I would spend hours making fake radio shows and dorky voices.” Mike West, the voice actor for series star Fox McCloud and Fox’s mysterious aviator-wearing father James, is a 35 year veteran of the radio broadcast world. After discovering a radio station tucked away in the corner of his high school, he used it to help overcome his shyness. “I happen to be dyslexic, but back in the day they didn’t have a name for dyslexia. I just thought I was stupid,” says West. Obviously not the case as although he is now retired from broadcasting, he still hosts a weekly radio program every Sunday called Breakfast With The Beatles. “I’ve been lucky enough to do concert spots for Paul McCartney and hang with him on a few occasions. Ringo has been very kind over the years too! He actually called me on my birthday from the UK. No kidding.”
Bill Johns is the voice behind hot-headed Falco Lombardi, the underling Caimen, Andross’ nephew and Star Wolf team member Andrew Oikonny, and the Meteo Crusher Pilot found in the Metro Asteroid Field mission. Now a professor at The Overlake School in Redmond, Washington, he started his teaching career in English and Drama, along with coaching soccer and wrestling, at his old high school in Conyers, Georgia in the ’80s. After studying abroad in Italy, he thought it was time for a change. “When I got back to the Atlanta area, I decided that as much as I loved teaching, I also wanted to do all the things I was asking of my students—’take chances, get out of comfort zones, do courageous things, reach a little farther than I think my arms can stretch.'” And so he did, joining the Academy Theatre in Atlanta and staying on for four years. Eventually missing the joys of his original profession, along with meeting his future wife and novelist Stephanie Kallos, he moved to the Seattle area where he teaches at both The Overlake School and Seattle Film Institute, and also acts on stage, film, and television.
Rick May, the venerable Peppy Hare and the maniacal exiled scientist Andross, has been in the acting business for years in one form or another, both in the U.S. and overseas. He teaches voiceover and accent classes out of Seattle, having mostly backed out of the limelight himself, although not entirely. “I used to run the Renton Civic Theatre for over twelve years, but am pretty much retired from stage acting and directing” You might recognize his voice as the gruff and somewhat dimwitted Soldier from Team Fortress 2. “Yes, I still do the Soldier – did another one a couple of months ago – and I am the ongoing voice, having done this since 2007. I occasionally do the odd commercial, voice job, etc., when my agent gets me hired,” states May. He also voices Inspector Lestrade in the continuing radio drama for Sherlock Holmes and occasionally does a one man show focusing on Teddy Roosevelt, although not as much in recent years. “As you might imagine, a one man show is pretty taxing.”
Lyssa Browne is the voice of Slippy Toad, the brains behind the scenes, Katt Monroe, the feline on-again off-again crush of Falco, and the deranged robot Spyborg. After graduating college with a theatre degree, she grabbed a Seattle-based agent right out of the gate. “I was doing some regional theatre but learned pretty quickly that the voiceover work was what was paying the bills, and it was a total blast! I get to use all the skills I leaned in theatre to create characters, but I have to funnel it all into the voice – an incredibly satisfying challenge.” Today, Browne co-owns an audio production company out of Seattle, Cedar House Audio Productions, producing audio books and other spoken word ventures. “I act as director for some of the books and voice some myself. It’s great fun!”
“I started in radio when I was just out of high school.” Jock Blaney, better known as Star Wolf captain and Star Fox’s biggest adversary Wolf O’Donnell, Fox’s old pal Bill Grey, and the Granga Pilot found at the end of the Corneria mission, started out reading hourly local news, weather, and sports in small radio markets. “That has always been what I enjoyed the most, writing and producing commercials. It seemed to offer more of a creative outlet.” After continuing to perfect his craft over the next few years, he was accepted into Mel Blanc’s Audio Media out of Los Angeles. The program consisted of intense workshops for actors and voiceover artists. “It was his training ground for aspiring voiceover actors,” remembers Blaney. He continues to write and produce, having received honors such as the International Broadcasting Award from The Hollywood Radio and Television Society.
“I recorded my first voiceover demo in 1985 or ’86 but never did anything with it.” Dave White, the man behind the Cornerian Army’s General Pepper, the defector and Star Wolf squad member Pigma Dengar, the ever-helpful Rob 64, and the Attack Carrier Pilot from the secret route of the Corneria mission, started out doing film and theatre work in Seattle. After graduating with a degree in theatre from the University of Washington and cutting another voice demo, it was around 1994 that his newly-hired agent started booking him far more voiceover projects, which he absolutely loved. “It was and still is so exciting to work behind the microphone. Today, voiceover is 95% of my work. Most of my voice work is for TV and radio commercials, TV promos and corporate narration.” Recording from his home studio in Seattle, he still occasionally does on-camera work, such as a small role on Grimm in 2015, as well as directing plays at both of his sons’ high schools.
Jay Green, the smooth voice of Leon Powlaski, as well as the Shogun Pilot from Sector Y, Sarumarine Captain from the toxic dump planet Zoness, the Forever Train Conductor at the Landmaster-focused Macbeth mission, the General of Area 6, and the narrator during the opening crawl, started his career a whole lot earlier than his fellow castmates. “After I graduated from college in 1966 with a Bachelor’s Degree, I tried banking and insurance – didn’t take to either.” He attended, in his words, “a quick radio school”, and found work out of California. Later on, he landed a major job at KVI Radio out of Seattle, becoming Production Director and winning seven local Soundies and a CLIO award. “Back in the day when Boeing was recording here in Washington, I narrated the unveiling of the Boeing 777.” Retired now, and by far the hardest of the voice actors to track down, he enjoys what he calls being “disconnected” from a lot of the online world. “I still do some radio plays and I get a call from time to time from a producer who I’ve worked with in the past, but I don’t actively seek out auditions anymore.”
LANDING THE ROLE, CREATING THE VOICE, AND THE EXPERIENCE
“Holy crap! 1997! That freaked me out for a moment.” -Mike West.
Auditions, as well as the recording sessions themselves, have changed a bit from the apparent run-and-gun nature of the ’90s. “I didn’t think much of it,” recalls West. “I read for various parts as the Nintendo folks directed and told me what they wanted the characters to sound like. The next thing I knew, we were recording.” The process itself seems to have been similarly like this across the board, with a good majority of the cast doing their work at Bad Animals Studios and Earforce Studios in Seattle. “There wasn’t a tremendous amount of copy in those early games. I’m pretty sure everything Falco said fit on a page and a half of script, in large font and double spaced,” says Johns. Indeed, the amount of voice work in the finished product is light, but nonetheless impactful. May was very unaware Peppy’s signature lines, like “Do a barrel roll!” or “Use bombs wisely!”, would turn into something so massive. “It was just a gig. I auditioned through my agent, got the job, and had no idea it was going to develop such a following.” Today, simply Google searching “Do a barrel roll” will make the entire screen do a barrel roll. Talk about a following.
For voice actors, the studio hiring you usually has an idea of what they want their characters to sound like, but they’re typically open to discussing ideas the actors portraying them might have. Several members of the Star Fox 64 cast were proficient at impressions; others had done radio dramas with a steely passion. “The experience with the Nintendo staff has always been fantastic. They are such professionals and passionate about what they do,” explains West. White concurred. “As I recall, the experience was very exciting. I believe we did it all in two or three sessions.”
Although none of the cast remembers any names of those in charge, they all had only kind words about their involvement recording for the game. Johns recalled one of the more interesting stories from his time behind the mic:
“I came to the recording session a little early and sat in with the sound engineer and the Bad Animals producer. I was the only cast member there—we each recorded our work separately. The Nintendo team was running a little late, so they asked if I wanted to lay down some practice tracks. I went into the booth, put on the headset and started doing triplets of the first line. The idea of triplets is to do the line three times without cutting, each with as much variation as possible so editors have lots of choices. I did the first set and the Bad Animals producer seemed to like it and we moved on to the second line. In just a few minutes we had worked halfway through the script and the Japanese team came in. They were young, well dressed and unbelievably apologetic. I’m not sure how much English anyone in the group spoke, but the Bad Animals producer told them we had done some practice tracks and wondered if they wanted to hear them. They did, and as I watched through the booth window, they listened in a very stony silence. They were all still standing and they put their heads together and conferred. After a few seconds, one of the Nintendo team looked at the Bad Animals producer and said in very halting English, ‘uh… more excited.’ The producer turned to me in the booth and said we were going to start over and to bring a little more to the next set of triplets. I had never seen or heard the Japanese version of the game, there was no monitor to give me any cues of what I was voicing. It just had to be ‘more excited.’ I did another set, bumping it up another notch. It was clear these lines were in the midst of some kind of combat. Even though Falco was cool and confident and had clearly seen it all, these lines were being delivered in the midst of a very bad day. After my next recording, they conferred again, and again the same team member looked at the Bad Animals producer and said, ‘uh… MORE excited.’ At some point I found myself almost wondering why we were doing triplets. Each time I did the line it seemed like I was ‘at eleven.’ We moved on to the second line and it became clear to me that if that script was any longer than the page and a half it was, I would have been hoarse for a week.”
Coming up with how each character sounded, from Leon’s gentlemanly accent to Pigma’s shrill squeals, was all done pretty simplistically, some just doing a few takes until they found what they wanted. With each character having a relatively small amount of spoken dialog, especially compared to today’s games, the sessions themselves weren’t that long. For Falco, inspiration was pulled from Star Wars. “They showed me a still print of the Falco character and said ‘think Han Solo.’ I guess whatever came out was what they wanted,” says Johns. For Slippy, one character description was all Browne needed. “They said they were looking for Slippy to sound like a young boy, so I kept tweaking my boy voice until they were happy with it.” For West, Fox’s voice came from something he had done previously. “I think someone at Nintendo was a fan of our radio comedy and told me what they had in mind based on something they heard on the air. Simple as that.” Green brought a mix and match approach, especially considering he had the most characters to play. “For Leon I gave them an array of British accents and voice tones. The rest were actor imitations like Slim Pickens and the like.” Although none of them recorded anything at the same time, many of them have been good friends or acquaintances over the years.
“The voice over community is pretty tight and I go way back with several of the other actors. I acted in a play with Andross (May), I’ve done many voiceovers with Falco (Mark Lund, the voice actor who took over the role around 2011), and I’m friends with General Pepper (White) and we’ve worked together a lot.” -Lyssa Browne
THE ABSENT YEARS AND RETURN TO FORM
Between 1997 and 2011, there were three other Star Fox related games released: Star Fox Adventures, Star Fox: Assault, and Star Fox Command, along with Super Smash Bros. Melee and Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the latter two of which had Fox and Falco as playable fighters. With the exception of Command, all of these games had voice acting and all of them used completely new voice actors to fill the roles made so famous by the original crew. “I have to admit that I am not a regular game player so I didn’t know what I was getting into or out of! I’m not sure why they switched actors, and I didn’t even know they had more games until they called me back in years later,” West states, his being called back referring to the remake of the 64 game, Star Fox 64 3D for the 3DS in 2011.
The lack of knowledge that sequels even existed, combined with the few of them that actually played games with any regularity, seemed like a good combination, among other reasons, for why some never returned to voice their respective characters. “I am not sure why except that it seems like many video game producers, at least back then, didn’t think it was important to use the same voice talent in subsequent versions of games,” says White. Although May was contacted, I was a little shocked to learn he had to re-audition for the voice of Peppy, and was denied playing the role. “Showbiz being what it is, I didn’t get the job even though I created the voice. That’s the way it goes.”
Although many of the actors would return down the line for the 3DS remake, many never have. Blaney’s iconic Wolf for example, with its European villain style, has been mostly replaced by a more gruff, deep sounding voice done by other actors. “I was a little disappointed at not returning,” says Blaney. “It may have been because I moved from Seattle some years back and was now working out of Las Vegas and they wanted their talent to be local Seattle. It would have been fun!”
Johns, also not a regular gamer, found out there were sequels through a friend of his, Mark Lund, who happened to have taken over the voice of Falco around 2011. While doing a play together out of Seattle (Lund was doing set design), the topic of voice acting was somehow stumbled upon and they realized they had both voiced the character. One of the younger actors in the play was also in the room during the discussion and wasn’t sold right away. “Star Fox was one of his all-time favorite video game series and at first he didn’t believe us. He pulled out his cell phone and checked us both out and his mouth hit the floor.” To get to act in a play with two Falco Lombardis is truly something to write home about.
Perhaps the most succinct of all the answers about why he was not asked back to voice characters for a few games came from Green. “Boy you got me!”
THE SMASH BROS. CHANGE UP
West, Green, Browne, and White all returned to Star Fox 64 3D to redub their original lines. The voices are nearly identical in both cadence and sound and it’s a real joy to hear everything all over again with improved graphics and sound quality. Three years later, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U was released, with West reprising Fox once again. This time, however, he sounded different. Upon hearing it for the first time, I actually didn’t think it was West. I asked him for his thoughts on the change. “In my opinion you have 20/20 hearing. I don’t know why they decided to change up Fox for this one. When you get hired for a voice job, you are alone in a booth. On the other side of the glass sits the engineer who makes sure the recording is proper. Then you have producers and directors who tell you what they want. Your job is to follow their direction.”
Listen to Fox from Star Fox 64, and then compare it to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.
The online feedback was also negative. A Google search for Fox McCloud’s voice in the newest entry to the fighting game series brings up several threads of confusion, disappointment, or outright bashing. “I try not to read social media crap but I saw some pretty harsh comments about my performance as well as a couple of other voice actors,” says West. For the newest entry in the series, Star Fox: Zero, it appears Nintendo has changed gears and had the characters return to the way they sounded in the original game. They’ve also brought Green, White, and Browne back to reprise their staple of characters. West seems pleased with his performance. “This go around with Fox, we all made damn sure that the voice matched the original, as much as it could after all these years. I was 34 years old when we recorded the first game, so if you do the math, Fox has an AARP card now!”
White was equally as enthusiastic about the new game. “It was actually pretty easy to slip back into General Pepper,” he says. “The directors and producers kept the sessions fun and easy going.” Browne also had a painless experience finding Slippy’s voice again. “They played a few of the original lines for me in the studio and when I did the first line, it sounded so exactly the same that we all cracked up.” Green was having so much fun he doesn’t even remembering asking what the voiceover was for. “I recorded a few tracks as the Great Leon and a couple of soldiers. I don’t know if they were for Star Fox: Zero. I was enjoying myself, so much that I forgot to ask. A sign of age I guess!”
YOUR VOICE, YOUR FUTURE, YOUR KIDS
As an artist, you often like to view your own work and see the final results. More so, sharing these amazing adventures with your kids can be a milestone. “When the game came out back in 1997, Nintendo was nice enough to send us a few copies,” states West. “I bought a console and my kids played Fox and the other games of that era with their friends. It is always strange hearing your own voice!” Browne’s sentiments were the same. Her husband does the gaming, but she still enjoys watching. “It is a little weird hearing myself, but I mostly think of them as characters and not me,” she says. May bought the game for his grandson, who loved it so much that he brought his grandfather to school for a show and tell and captured the entire class with tales of Peppy Hare. “It’s never weird anymore to hear my own voice since I’ve been doing it for decades,” says a clearly unfazed May.
Blaney, who never played Wolf again, but did in fact wind up returning to Nintendo for a voice in Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, is not fond of hearing himself. “I don’t usually like hearing my voice too much because when I do I always feel I could have done it better.” Johns had a similar reaction when watching his children play games in which he did voices. “The last thing I would ever want to do is pull them out of that amazing environment and say, ‘yeah, that’s me saying that.'” Green, who doesn’t play games, was just thrilled that his daughter was excited about it. “She would tell her friends, ‘That’s my Dad!'”, he remembers. “The only reason they finally believed her was because one of her classmates’ father had a recording studio where I frequently went to record commercials and other projects.”
Most of the cast still have pretty busy day to day lives and jobs, as well as growing families. West’s son Michael plays in the band Telekinesis. “When he was in junior high I took him to a Radiohead concert and it completely changed his world. He started making music and when he graduated from high school he was accepted to Paul McCartney’s school in Liverpool,” says West. After graduating, Chris Walla of the band Death Cab for Cutie, found some of Michael’s music online and wanted to produce for him. “Kind of a fairytale story. His music has been licensed for many commercials. He has written some theme songs for sitcoms and tunes for movies. A while back he played on Fallon. Another awesome day for the family.” West still records commercials, does VO work for the Carolina Panthers, and of course, Fox when asked. He even reprised the role for his old high school radio station during a pledge drive, which he often returns to as a mentor for the future broadcasters. “He asked me to pledge as Fox. I didn’t know that ended up on YouTube. I guess everything does these days, which is super cool.”
Although he had a few opportunities in front of the camera out in LA, West ultimately preferred less limelight. “Metromedia wanted to develop a sitcom or talk show surrounding me but I really disliked Los Angeles and my wife and I, along with our 6 month old daughter, drove back to Seattle and never looked back,” he recalls. Although semi-retired now, he doesn’t sit on his hands. “One of my hobbies is coffee,” he says. “I take barista lessons. I am trying to perfect my latte art.” He keeps hard at work from his studio out of his home, never wishing to miss a beat. “Retirement to me doesn’t mean sitting on my ass watching TV. I like doing and learning and being Fox McCloud. Did I mention that I’m a lucky SOB?”
White’s two sons, Connor and Ian, are both following in their father’s footsteps. “Connor has been doing voiceover since he was about 14 and since graduating college last spring, is pursuing it as a career. Ian started young but hasn’t done much in the last few years. He is currently in college and may get back into it later when he has more time.” White does voice work on a large number of political ads, thrilled about the hectic schedule. “2016 should be a busy one for that.” He hopes to do more video game voices in the future, but has to be careful about what he chooses for the sake of his pipes. “I work every day with ongoing voiceover clients and can’t afford to abuse my voice, as I have on many games in the past.” Thankfully, General Pepper retains his stern yet kind military tone in his latest outing.
Johns has three children, all of which he is infinitely proud of. “My youngest is a high school senior and does want to study theatre in college. I’m really excited to see where it leads him.” Along with his teaching, he continues to be in plays, direct them, and has a recurring role in the crowd funded TV series JourneyQuest.
Blaney continues to strive for bigger projects, always enjoying the thrill of new work. “I’ve been doing this for so long I don’t think I’d be satisfied doing anything else,” he says. He hopes to get involved in some of the more major animated pictures in the industry right now, even with the odds largely, and unfairly, not in his favor. “I know that recognizable actors usually do the main characters, but supporting characters offer a great creative challenge.” As for his daughter, although he thinks she’d make a fine actress, she has decided to use her talents in other areas of life. “I’m very proud of her.”
Green’s daughter is apparently a wonderful singer. “Powerful pipes! She has no interest in acting or voiceover work. The world’s loss!” He continues to be disconnected from social media and enjoying retirement immensely. “Live long and prosper!” he finished.
May, who continues to teach classes out of Seattle, prefers to take life easy at this point. His kids and grandchildren also hold no desire for voice acting work, again at the world’s loss. Although he only did Peppy for one game, his version always was my favorite and I told him as much while we talked. “If they ever do more Star Fox, I hope they contact you for a good word about me.”
Browne also keeps busy with her audio production company, constantly enjoying the wide range of work she gets to take part in. “I love the infinite variety to my job. Creating voices and bringing print material to life in audio is my favorite thing. I am incredibly grateful I get to do it.”
With the 20th anniversary of Star Fox 64 approaching next year, it’s truly incredibly to see what the original cast has been up to. Everyone, with the exception of Green and his well earned retirement, has managed to continue to work, or teach, in their field to this day, all with extreme success. They all seem happy, engaged, and ready for more. We defended the Lylat System with them, or stopped them from taking it over, many years ago. Although they aren’t all returning to bring to life the characters we fell in love with, we’re ready to do it again in the newest installment and every game that follows. Their voices were integral to giving the Star Fox series it’s legs, amputated to withstand intense G-force or not. Johns sums it up pretty nicely:
“All in all, I live a pretty wonderful life—my family is made up of artists, I love my work and seem to have found a lovely balance in the things that bring me joy, and every once in a while, someone reminds me that I did something that impacted their life. ‘I guess I should be thankful…'”