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.    

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