Back in the days of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, most games were developed using 2D sprites instead of 3D polygons. The few rare games that did make use of polygons had to use simple shapes as the hardware wasn’t up to the task of handling more complex 3D objects.
That’s why the Arwing — the ship in Star Fox — was of a simple triangular shape. “We called it Arwing because it was like one big wing shaped like an A,” Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto revealed in an Iwata Asks interview about Star Fox 64 3D.
As to why the game was called “Star Fox,” Miyamoto says the initial inspiration to use animals came to him because he wasn’t interested in using robots or monsters like other sci-fi products such as Star Wars or Mobile Suit Gundam.
“Star Fox has a lot of scenes in which the fighter goes through arches, which reminds one of the gates at Shinto shrines called torii,” Miyamoto related. The torii reminded Miyamoto of the gates at one of the most prominent shrines dedicated to the Japanese god, Inari. The shrine was located close to Nintendo’s headquarters at the time, and there was a boys’ baseball team in the area called “Inari Foxes,” which is what inspired the name.
“So it was the English word "fox" from the start—not the Japanese word kitsune,” Miyamoto reveals. Other characters such as Falco and Peppy were designed as a bird and a hare due to inspiration drawn from Japanese folk tales. As for General Pepper (Corneria forces commander) and Andross (Star Fox’s archenemy), the two were designed as a dog and monkey in reference to the Japanese phrase about “fighting like dogs and monkeys”.
The illustration above is art work for the original Star Fox by designer, Takaya Imamura. You can see a torii down by Fox’s feet.