Welcome back to our occasional series examining ‘Whatever Happened to Classic LEGO Themes?’ Previously, we took a look at the Classic town sets from 1978-1990.
We examined the way that the theme was defined by certain colours, shapes, and how a gradually expanding parts palette resulted in an evolution in the design of sets during this period. In 1978, when the LEGOLAND branded sets were first released, along with LEGO Minifigure, this was the theme set in the present, the real world, containing subject matter that kids could relate to: LEGO Town was set in the contemporary world, bringing kids experiences they could understand.
In this article, we shall trace the development of these ’Real World’ LEGO sets during the ‘System Era.’ The ‘System’ label, with the red 2×4 in place of the arm on the letter ‘T,’ was used to distinguish the other brick systems used in LEGO construction toys at this time: DUPLO and TECHNIC. The mark appeared in the upper left corner of the front of LEGO Boxes, to the right of the LEGO logo. This label appeared on LEGO Sets released from 1992 to 1999.
The System Era arrived a few years after the introduction of LEGO Pirates in 1989 – That innovative theme introduced, the colour brown and palm trees to the LEGO Palette, to say nothing of additional facial hair.
Moving through this time, we see a broadening of activities with LEGO Town:In our other themes: castle and space we saw sets focussing on different, but seperate factions sets focus on different factions: Black Falcons, Crusaders/Lion Knights; Blacktron and Space Police, etc. Pirates maintained a primary faction (eg Pirates or Imperials), but would tend to have a few from the opposing team in most sets. As this era moves forward, we see ‘contemporary real world’ based sets split into different themes, ultimately seeing the TOWN branding disappear completely.
We see Trains continue to be developed, independently of LEGO Town. This theme brought us playsets, railside support and rolling stock. We see the introduction of a number of other themes that exist alongside the typical town sets. These themes include Paradisa, Divers,, Spaceport and Arctic, amongst others. Determining whether these should be considered to be seperate themes, or subthemes of Town is a little challenging through the lens of history.
Contemporary catalogs certainly treated Paradisa, Trains, Floating Ships, Divers and Team Extreme as themes seperate to LEGO Town. As as we reach the latter end of the decade, we see the town branding vanish, changing over to City: not the LEGO City we know and love today, but one that just looked like a juniorised town) Town sets that had been released in 1998 under the Town branding were presented on the City catalogue pages in 1999. There were also some newer, simpler sets released at this time. That said, I regard Classic Town (as in the 1978-1991 era) to be sets representing life in the contemporary world – so I feel that all of the sets that fit into this classification qualify for consideration in this discussion.
Welcome to Paradisa: Pink, Pink, and More Pink…
In the world of LEGO playthemes, Paradisa brought something completely new: with their pastel colour palette, these sets were also the first ‘real world’ sets to feature face prints other than the Classic Smiley. Set content followed either an equestrian theme, or an eternal summer beach holiday. Paradisa was produced from 1992 to 1997 and overall 18 sets were released. While Paradisa saw the first appearances of some colours such as pink and light green, others that were intrinsic to the palette in the later years, such as dark pink, made their first appearances in Belville and Freestyle sets. Light grey had been used sparingly in Classic Town. However, it becomes an important part of of the pastel colour palette seen in Paradisa. As well as the parts for the wind surfer, the theme introduces the transparent quarter circular domes, as seen in 6416 Poolside Paradise below. Extruded baseplates have previously been seen in Pirates (1989), Castle (1990) and Blacktron (1991). They appeared in Paradisa in 1992 – also set 6416 – but were not in a real town set until the 21st century, by which time we had entered the early days of the modern LEGO City.
There were several faceprints that debuted in Paradisa as well, including the female face with eyelashes and lipstick, a face full of freckles – presumably for a child – and well as the man with the pencil moustache (in conjunction with a normal smile). The theme also brought a simple face print consisting of a traditional smile, with added sunglasses. In 1995 we saw the first appearance of the dolphin element, in parallel with its appearance in Hurricane Harbour, part of the ‘town proper’ sets.
LEGO Trains: Into The 9V Era.
In the 1970s and ’80s, there were a number of different ways that train sets were powered: 12 Volt – using a powered centre rail; 4.5 Volts using 3 ‘C’ cell batteries and push-a-long.In 1991, we saw a new system introduced: a 9Volt system, with power reaching the motor via metal rails, and consuctive wheels – just like a ‘normal’ train set. This system remained in production to the late 2000s, at which stage Power Functions took over.
Along with the Red Freight Train, and Crocodile, we also saw the sleek Metroliner – one of the first times we saw a major set in Town appear with grey as a dominant colour.
These initial releases were the mainstay of the train line until 1994, when we saw a new freight train, as well as a few support vehicles. Further trains appeaerd in 1996, along with a colour shift for the buildings from yellow to red.
As the system era drew to a close, we see vastly different sets released: in 1998, the 3225 Classic Train brought the steam engine look back to the trains line, and the sleek 4560/4561Passenger Express.
Meanwhile, Back in the Town…
Earlier, we saw that Paradisa introdiuced some new faceprints in 1992, and they started to roll out to Town shortly after, although we still saw plenty of classic smiley’s throughout the decade.
While a lot of the sets released in LEGO Town during the ’90s covered similar material to the first decade or so, there were a few changes to be made: to start with, Octan arrived, providing the energy needs of LEGO Town.
The other tried and true themes of LEGO Town from the ’80s remain steadfast: Police, Fire, Harbour, Leisure and Racing are all common place across the years. A new shipbuilding standard, introduced in 1990, resulted in a collection of harbour sets around the early 90’s. Of interest is the way that there are no curves to be seen in these boats: the bows are moulded on a variety of angles, rather than introducing any curves to the slopes.
The Town Police Get Some Work To Do…
During the 1980’s, the LEGO police seemed to spend their time helping stranded travellers, with very little actual crime occurring in the Town itself. Despite that, the Town Police force was very well equipped, with the latest technologies.
At least they were able to contact base for backup, and had flashing lights and sound to provide an exciting level of realism.
But it wasn’t all skittles and beer for the police of LEGO Town…
Let’s just take a quick look at one legacy from LEGO Town in the 90’s that extends into LEGO City: Jailbreak Joe. Now, Jailbreak Joe is the only figure dressed like a traditional convict that ever appears in LEGO Town (as opposed to City). Appearing first in 1993, he appeared again in 1995 and 1996.
Now, we have no evidence of this character performing any crime other than escaping custody. If that’s is what he is doing. For all we know, he is in fact a security consultant, finding the flaws in the LEGO Town prisoner securement facilities.
When we come to explore LEGO City we will see that there are far more criminal archetypes in prison gear to the extent that a criminal element becomes a staple for virtually every set involving the police.
Overall, we see only 14 Police sets during this era: Personally, I find the most intriguing set to be the 6545 Search and rescue: mainly because it uses the same windscreen that defined the look of Classic Space for most of the 90’s. It certainly creates a dynamic look for the vehicle.
The majority of the police sets released during this decade have multiple builds for quality play value: with combinations of motorbike, car, helicopter, boat and/or headquarters being a staple.
Of course, it would not be LEGO Town without the presence of a helicopter on the back of a truck, and this time we see it with the police in 1998.
Around this time, we also see a change in the colour scheme for police vehicles at this time, introducing transparent green windows and windscreens. Rather than the previously common transparent light blue.
The Town’s on Fire
It would surprise any follower of the LEGO City Fire brigade that there were only 8 fire brigade sets produced during the years from 1992-2000. I presume they had a reasonably long retail shelf life. There is a decided difference between the techniques used in 1994 (6340/6571) and 1997 (4686/6554). This juniorization of construction technique (specialised elements, simple building techniques became increasingly common in the early iteration of LEGO City (1999-2000), and spread into a number of themes in the early 2000s.
Simple go-kart like race cars have been present in LEGO Town since the very beginning. During the 90’s we see more and more of them released, along with a number race-tracks to race them on. These were released regularly until 1999. These vehicles got their own standalone theme, RACE, in 2000. RACE contained more complicated build techniques than were seen in the juniorized CITY sets around this time, but more about that later.
Build Me Up
Contruction themed sets were a strong presence in the early days of LEGO Town, and again today in LEGO City, but during the SYSTEM Era, there were relatively few – only 5 between 1992 and 2000. Again, we see a juniorisation in the building techniques used, as TOWN becomes City in 1999-2000.
Looking for somewhere to live
Having seen 12 different houses over the ‘LEGOLAND’ years – 1978-1990, there are only four seen in LEGO Minifigure scale sets released with the SYSTEM label. Of these, one (6414) was part of the Paradisa theme, and another (1854) was a promotional release, and not generally available. Otherwise, housing had all but vanished in the formal ‘town’ range. We are not seeing as many new houses enter the Town themes, as we had seen in earlier years.
Likewise, unless you were going to the service station, there were fewer general shopping, and casual dining opportunities compared to the earlier years of this theme.
A Little Licensing On The Side: Exploring Further Afield.
The LEGO Group has always been quite happy to be involved with external companies to produce sets with various corporate logos. In the past we have seen products branded with Shell, as well as MacDonalds, to say nothing of various dairies and shipping Company, Maersk. Many of these sets were promotional, with limited circulation. Of course, they were not above just a tint bit of self promotion either!
Side Trips and Diversions.
I’m not quite sure exactly where LEGO Town is located but from time to time, people were looking to get out of town, and expand their horizons. We saw a couple of formal subthemes (according to the contemporary catalogues) – such as Outback, and the 1995 Space Launch Command sub-theme. From around 1997 onwards, we saw some seperate themes covering contemporary or near future material. These themes included: Divers, Team Extreme, Res-Q, Space Port, as well as Arctic.
Our first side trip took us to the LEGO Town Space Launch Command: with a shuttle, moon buggy and service vehicle. There was also a jet, piggy-backing the shuttle back to the launch site as part of the series.
Outback (1997) took a few intrepid travellers into the Australian Outback, past the farmhouse, through the crocodile infested waters and then heading out across the desert as part of the annual rally. While there are not many sets included in this subtheme, it provided an alternative environment for our minfigs to explore, especially at a time when landscape did not feature heavily in LEGO Town sets.
As Town starts to wind down, we see the real world themes reaching out beyond the town: they had their own pages in the catalogue, and their own logos:
In 1997, we saw the arrival of the Divers theme: based on real world undersea exploration, and added some great new molds, including manta ray, and a new submarine mold with maniulating arms. The bubble canopy cae the pilot a 180º view of the undersea world. This is certainly the precursor to the Deep Sea Exploration subthemes that we have seen in LEGO City, on and off over the last few years. From 1997 to 1998, we also saw Aquazone – with a blockier shape and exotic enemies, it felt like more of a science fiction theme than Divers did.
As TOWN started to wind down, we saw a few other themes develop ‘Real World’ subject matter. Two such themes were Extreme Team and Res-Q: With X’s and Q’s scientifically demonstrated to improve sales, these themes came with a feeling of action and excitement, as well as their own colour schemes:
Extreme team sought to visit exotic locales: to travel as fast, hight, or indeed as wet as they could. ResQ were a Search and Rescue team (I see what they did there). Some models in each of these ranges borrowed design elements from space sets earlier in the decade:
The Space Port theme in 1999 brought us many elements of the original Classic Space theme: small rovers, a larger communications vehicle, a few small fliers as well as a couple of different bases: one to launch, and another for training. As we have seen in the more recent (2019) City Mars Mission sets, most sets have their parallels in the original run of Classic Space – which celebrated toe 20th Anniversary of its global release in 1999.
And Travelling to the Ends of the Earth. One End, Anyway
Polar exploration has always been fascinating: a completely alien environment, requiring exquipment unlike anything you might normally use in the big city. Add a threat from Alien Meteorites, containing frozen creatures, and the mystery and adventure are soon to follow.
Using a couple of small panels in the catalog, the child is hooked on the story behind the theme, with just enough of an idea to get the story going, but not so much that they cannot use their own ideas to tell the story.
Using a colour scheme reminiscent of ICE Planet 2002 – white, blue, black, orange (but not the same transparent flourescent version that called out ‘Space’ on Ice Planet), the sets set up a great story for exploration. Arctic continues to be a favorite Exploration Theme within LEGO City today – having returned in 2014 and 2018.
A Glimpse Of The City
The TOWN label was last seen in LEGO Print Catalogues in 1998. In 1999 and 2000, we saw the real world sets associated with a CITY LOGO. This theme brought us similar content to LEGO Town: Police, Fire and Construction. As we have seen, other subthemes that we had seen associated with LEGO Town, such as racers were spun off to see the creation of LEGO Race, along with Res-Q and Extreme Team taking on more adventurous vehicles. At this time, CITY sets were characterised by larger, complex moulds, often designed to take the place of multiple elements, and also to an extent, ’chunkier’ elements. This served to make theme easier for younger builders to put together. For example, the carefully brick-built front-ends of cars regressed 20 years, to the printed brick standard of 1979. And although these bricks might have had a greater level of detail, for me, they just don’t hold the same level of charm.
I can appreciate the spirit of what is going on with these sets: the complexity of construction is returning to the standards that we saw back in the early days of LEGO Town: vehicles could be rapidly assembled, and you can get on with play. And elements were easier to handle for smaller hands. But compared with the vehicles we had seen in the earlier part of the ’90s, or even the contemporary ’Race’ subtheme, these are far more chunky. There are some elements which are highly specific in their purpose: the box for the snorkel engine; the feet for the stabilisers on that truck. But then you look at the buildings, which feel like they are little more than frames with windows attached, and it feels like something is missing. All of the components are there, but perhaps the heart is gone.
Perhaps it was, in part, an attempt to claw back on a degree of complexity-creep that had been occurring in ’base product’ sets. In years to come, this juniorisation would be reflected with a new scale of figure, and sets including Spiderman, Pirates and Jack Stone.
Given the arrival of more complex builds in the other themes – Divers, Race, Team Extreme, ResQ and Arctic – I find my self thinking that the CITY sets at this time were providing simpler builds, ready to play with, for a younger audience. However, this was not necessarily appealing to more experienced builders, looking to develop their own town or city layouts.
In the 1980s, LEGO Town had a fairly consistent look: Colour palette and parts were fairly well defined. There was very little grey, compared to space or castle; and primary colours were evident. Parts would mainly serve as Space, Town or Castle parts, and with the exception of wedged elements used in plance and boats, the majority of building was very blocky in nature.
During these System years, we have sets reflecting contemporary life being developed initially in three themes: Town, Trains and Paradisa. We start to see elements borrowed from space in particular ( looking at the various helicopter and police van windscreens here, in particular), and an increased use of sloped elements – particularly on rooflines, but also in the bonnets of vehicles. Curved elements were relatively rare in town, but Paradisa did make extensive use of arches.
As we headed towards the end of the era, we saw more complex builds become part of external themes, but still set in a fairly real world: Team Extreme, ResQ Space Port, Race, Trains and Arctic. At the same time, Town, and the following City theme were targeting a younger building audience, with simpler builds.
While the earlier phase of Classic Town might have stood for developing the type of content as well as material for the theme, the System era saw a period of expansion and diversification, with more themes diving deeper into the expanded, contemporary world.
I hope you have enjoyed this trip through the System Era of Classic town. In our next instalment, we shall look briefly at World City, before moving onto LEGO City. We shall look at the way that LEGO City has changed over the years, as well as the ways that LEGO City, as we know it, differs from LEGO Town.
If you have read this far, you may well be interested in our upcoming givaway for these fantastic Nostalgic Monochromatic Minifigures from Jumper Plate. You still have a week to get your entry in: for details, read this post.
I’m looking forward to completing our journey through Classic Town, and LEGO City… if only so we can move onto other great classic themes, such as Castle and Space. If you have enjoyed this article, please share it with you friends, and dont forget to check out the previous article in this series here and here.
Was the System Era part of your childhood? What did you love about it? Why dont you leave your comments below, and until next time,…