Thursday, April 19, 2012

Lego Themes: A History - Part 1

My younger readers (really anyone under the age of 18 which is, other than AFOLs, Lego's entire market...) will have a hard time imagining this but when I came onto the Lego scene in 1987 there were only 3, yes 3, themes within the Lego system line.  Town, Castle and Space. 

Within each of those there were some sub themes that would ring bells for a modern audience (such as coast guard and space police) but if you wanted something outside the town, castle or space motifs you were up a creek without a paddle.  In 1989 the Pirate theme was added and those four comprise what is generally known as the 4 core themes.

Of those 4 only town (though its name has changed through the years) has had an uninterrupted run until now.  Here is a brief history of each of those 4 themes. 

Pirate was the first of the core 4 to go, disappearing in the late 90s for no apparent reason (though I am guessing it was diminishing sales due to the decrease in set quality). 

6280 Armada Flagship from 1996.  The rainbow of colors and boring
construction helped make this the least profitable pirate product line.
It was brought back for a brief run in 2009 but no sets other than the original wave were released (with the exception of the ultimatel collector's Imperial Flagship, thank you Lego for that parting gift!) which means sales were not high enough to warrant them.  We also got a brief reprieve with the Pirate of the Caribbean sets from last year but as the movie was a dud and there have been no additional sets I am guessing that Pirate has once again been deep sixed and we won't be seeing any new sets for awhile.  I must confess that this baffles me.  In my mind Pirates are some of the most fun sets in Lego's  product line.  The only explanation I have for them not taking with the modern audience is that kids would rather play with licensed themes and figures than not, meaning that Pirates don't rise high enough on the priority list to top Star Wars or one of the other licensed themes based on a popular movie or TV show.  It is a shame, a real shame.  My kids, however, will be more than set.  I have all 12 Lego Pirate ships and a variety of other supporting locations not to mention all the Islanders.  It is a fond hope of mine that the high seas will be a very busy place in my household a few years from now!

AFOLs differ in their opinions of when it started but all will agree that the quality of Lego Space diminished in the 90s.  Where exactly the slide started is debated.  I personally hold the opinion that the Exploriens in 1996 were the last great Space sub theme.  Regardless the Insectizoids of 1998 were the last of the original Space themes until the recent Space Police 3 theme from a couple of years ago.

The very mediocre Insectizoid sub theme marked the end of an era. 
I picked this set up for $12 and still almost felt ripped off
That latest Space Police Theme marked the return of an original space story line and set of characters after a decade long hiatus prompted by Lego's first foray, in 1999, into the licensing world with Star Wars.  Bowing to the established characters form a galaxy far far away the Lego Space theme does as of late appear to be making a resurgence as Space Police 3 had 2 waves in successive years and was followed by the Alien Conquest theme.  Whether the market is ready or not has yet to be seen.  Nothing new is slated for release this year within the genre and the license with Lucasfilm was extended another 10 years...              

Castle outlasted Space by a mere 2 years before being felled by the second most lucrative Lego license to date: Harry Potter.  Released to coincide with the first several movies the Harry Potter theme with its medieval architecture was deemed to close a product to the traditional Castle theme and it was suspended over fears of one cannibalizing the other's sales. 

The original Hogwart's Castle.  The coming of succesive renditions of
the famous wizard's school displaced tradional castle sets for a time.
Its return was further delayed by the Vikings theme but Castle returned with a vengeance in the form of the Fantasy Era sets in 2007.  The theme has maintained its resurgence in the form of the Kingdoms sets although, as no new ones were released this year, its future is in doubt.  It may become another victim of the licensing trend. 

The one theme that has endured (although its name has changed multiple times from Town to City Center to World City and now just City) is this one.  Its quality level has risen and fallen but it has been a bench mark for decades now. 

In my next post I will look at the themes other than the core 4 that have had the longest runs.    

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Rule of Awesome

I love the new Dino theme that Lego released this year.  Not just because the sets are decent (though they are pretty good).  Not because the dinosaurs are the best ever produced (though they are).  And not just because of the incredible playability available in pretty much every set.  No what I love most of all is the complete lack of pretense.  What do I mean?  Let me elaborate.

Lego has made 3 previous forays into the world of dinosaurs.  The first was the Dino Island line of sets from the Adventurers theme back in 2000.  The storyline for that series borrowed from the Lost World hypothesis made famous by Michael Chrichton in his book of the same name: somewhere there is an as of yet unexplored place where animals thought to be extinct have survived undetected until now!  Probable?  Not so much but certainly plausible. 

5987 Dino Research Headquarters from 2000
Next came the Jurassic Park III sets which were part of the studios theme.  This was a straight up license and drew directly from the Jurassic Park storyline to explain how humans were facing dinosaurs in a perilous quest for survival. 

1371 Spinosaurus Attack from 2001
Finally there was the Dino 2010 theme from 2005.  The premise here was that some sort of radioactive accident had unleashed a hoard of mutant beasts, most notably ferocious dinosaurs!  This was in keeping with the zombie/apocalypse-from-science-gone-wrong-motif which has been popular for the last decade (think of movies such as I Am Legend).  A super thin explanation?  Absolutely; but it works and fit with the cultural pattern of the time.

7298 Dino Air Tracker from 2005
What I love about this most recent installment in the man versus dino category is that Lego has dropped all attempts at coming up with a reason for how or why man suddenly finds himself in the presence of fully grown long extinct creatures.  All pretense is gone, they give us no story, no explanation, just awesome sets where men fight dinosaurs. 

5884 Raptor Chase from 2012
And they can get away with this because of the rule of awesome.  What is that?  Simple.  It is the concept that so long as a given thing is awesome it needs no explanation.  This is a major force in our culture right now.  The most recent large scale example I have seen of this idea is the soon to be released movie Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.  I saw a preview for this last week.  Perhaps the movie will give more background but the 3 minute preview gave zero explanation for how one of America’s greatest leaders had an entire previous life, hitherto unknown, in which he slew all manner of satanic beasts.  The idea is that the movie makers don’t need to explain because, for enough viewers (though I must confess I am not one of them…), the concept of Old Abe fighting vampires in his top hat is so awesome that their need for a rational explanation will be suspended.  Lego is employing the exact same logic here: man versus dinosaurs is so intrinsically awesome that there need be no explanation for how it is possible, the fact that it exists is enough.  And I must confess it’s true.  When I first saw these sets I immediately said “I want those”.  I needed no storyline, no explanation; they were just so cool that they immediately won me over.   I highly recommend these sets!              

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


My collection just passed a major milestone, the 300 set mark.  While that number does not compete with some of the truly mind boggling collections one can find on (where do those people get the money for all that Lego??!!!) it does probably place me above the average Lego enthusiast if for no other reason than that I have been collecting for almost 3 decades now!

Some enthusiast collect a certain them or type of set.  Commonly known as “completists”, these collectors focus their energy and pocket books on securing every set within a theme, genre or other category.  Star Wars and Classic Space are two themes that I have found have more completists than others.  There are also poly-bag completists (that one baffles me…) and a whole range of others in the Bionicle and Technic themes.  There are a couple of sub-themes that I have the complete product line (Ice Planet, Extreme Team, Islander and M-Tron) and I also have every official Lego Pirate ship.  However, my collection is much more in keeping with what I call an open collection.  I range far and wide securing enough sets to have what I deem would be a satisfactory play experience in any given theme or subtheme that catches my eye.  In almost no part of my collection will you find a lone set from a theme or subtheme (there are a couple exceptions but they are all small).  Due to my age I have a large number of sets from the 4 core themes (Pirate, Space, Castle and Town/City) but have also acquired liberal amounts of entries from the later more diverse themes (large helpings of Aquazone, Star Wars, Adventurers and more recently Exo-Force and Power Miners). 

As I am an engineer I could not help but run some quick statistics.  I started collecting when I was three years old so I have averaged 12 sets per year (doesn’t sound nearly as impressive when put that way!).  According to I have spent over $7,000.00 on Legos (though it is likely far less as I inherited many sets, got others as gifts and recently have sourced all the parts for sets at a cost far less than MSRP).  Including a rough estimate of my excess bricks (which probably almost equal my regular collection in piece count) I have about 143,000 individual parts.  I have sets in 32 Major Themes and 76 Subthemes.  My favorite year is apparently 1996 (which I consider smack in the middle of Lego’s Golden Age) as I have 22 sets from that year (Wild West, Exploriens and Pirates made that happen).  Every year from 1986 onward is represented in my collection.  Overall my collection is in fairly good shape, almost no lost or broken pieces though some of my hinges are getting pretty worn.