Whatever Happened to Classic Town Part III: Into The Dark Ages

Welcome back to our exploration of classic themes. When we last visited LEGO Town, it was in the process of becoming juniorized. The Classic Town that many had grown up with was becoming an almost cartoonlike parody of itself. From 1978 through to the early ’90s, Town had a certain degree of simplicity, but with style. It was always striving to be its best, held back by the limits of the system, rather than the ability of the builder.

During the ’90s we saw the diversification of design: elements were used across many themes, we saw a broadened colour palette, and as time went by, we saw more themes/subthemes depicting aspects of contemporary life: Paradisa, Divers, Race, Outback, Arctic, Spaceport, Extreme Team and Res-Q. Towards the end of this era, the traditional town sets – fire, police, construction – were labelled ‘city’ and we saw a juniorization of some of the sets; a reduction in complexity, and perhaps a slight step away from attempting a realistic appearance.

Legends of a Time Gone By

And then, as we entered the 21st century…nothing happened. Well, that’s not entirely true. We saw some of the classic town sets re-released, including the Pizza to Go, Breezeway Cafe, a Police HQ and Airport.

Image: Brickset

We also saw a reissue in 2002 of the classic LEGO Road plates. However, taking a look at the packaging, you cannot help but think that perhaps, just perhaps, something is up.

Compared to the previous version from 1997, the road has been widened from 16 to 20 studs, and the plates have been made green, with grey printing. A nice green verge. If nothing else, we will be able to fit wider cars on the road. Why on earth would anyone want to do that!

Oh… I see they are making wider cars in Jack Stone, to start with… well that can’t hurt, can it?

Can it?

Decline and Fall: Enter the Dark Ages

There were no new town/city sets released for several years. Minifigures were to be found in licenced sets (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Spider-Man), as well as in-house story-based themes such as Adventurers and Alpha Squad.

LEGO Studios occupied a niche area, while we also had Sports – incorporating Football/Soccer, as well as basketball and hockey. The soccer sets particularly surged to coincide with the World Cup in 2002. While Studios also came with a webcam to record your own brickfilms, Sports provided a different sort of interactive experience, to tackle that ever-present digital threat.

Finally, we had Island Extreme Stuntz (2002). Just why a range of sets involving Pepper Roni skating around after Brickster (on his Motor-Trike), especially given that few sets offered more than a minimal building experience, even existed remains a mystery to me. Perhaps I am being too harsh. In real life, I was in my dark ages at this time, and my eldest child was 2: we were too busy playing with LEGO Explore (The theme formerly and subsequently known as DUPLO) at that time.

But, sets depicting police station and fire-truck inspired action continued to exist: just not as they did several years earlier. Progressively sliding towards an excessively juniorized state: sets had larger elements, and fewer parts in each set. Many of these larger elements were restricted to one or two sets.

And then we met Jack Stone. With his fancy jeans, immaculately styled hair and no sense of Workplace Health and Safety, Jack Stone was a man of action: Police, Fire, Res-Q: he did it all, no matter how weird the vehicles and buildings looked. With a tendency to 4 stud wide car chassis with another 4 studs added by the width of the wheels, the cars looked more like go-karts and there was a tendency to add plug-in technic elements. But, the theme did bring us a traditional LEGO staple: the inevitable Helicopter on the Back of a Truck.

Even creator sets in 2001 at this time embraced the Juniorised figures, with Max and Tina designed to help inspire creativity in younger builders:

Jack Stone evolved into 4-Juniors, which in 2003-4 while bringing us fire, police and construction, also presented us with Pirates and Spider-Man at a similar scale. Some of the sets look truly terrifying. However, it is only by learning from the mistakes of the past that the future is able to be a brighter place.

But these stalwarts of LEGO Play: Fire, police, and more did not remain the pervue of the preschool set, and in 2003, a new urban-based theme was introduced: LEGO World City.

Into LEGO World City

This take on Town saw a return to normal, town-based minifigure scaled activity, up to a point. In the 2003 catalogue, LEGO World City fell under the umbrella heading of “LEGO Stories and Action” which, along with the themes already mentioned above, included Belville, Orient Expedition, Alpha team, Harry Potter, Discovery, Spider-Man, Racers, Star Wars and Bionicle. I can see the logic of this grouping, but it is such a disparate collection, lacking any binding features.

If you are familiar with the company history, you will remember that at this time, amongst other things, the Duplo range was renamed ‘LEGO Explore’ and that things were starting to look bleak. But I digress.

LEGO World City promised a place where “anything can happen- anytime! You are the one to decide how, where and when the street comes to life. There are endless possibilities to build and rebuild your own action stories over and over again.”

In this first year, the prime foci of the World City included Transport (and indeed, around 6 sets were based around train infrastructure), and Police and Rescue. Trains are now an integral part of the ‘World City’ – not restricted to their own theme – and this will continue with the basic train sets as part of LEGO City in the future, although other trains would come to fall under the umbrellas of LEGO Factory, Creator Expert and later, LEGO for Adults.

In the first wave of sets, at least two sets arrived with an obvious villain, the others appeared to be a little cartoonish in their appearance.

In 2004, the scope opened up a little more, and we saw the Coast Guard and Fire department. The police hovercraft also had the chance to apprehend crooks who were hanging out in an abandoned warehouse.

There were a few changes that helped us to think we had moved out of the small town: Trucks were 6 studs wide, and the road plates were seen to widen appropriately. With cars, however, the chasses themselves were only 4 studs wide: the same whacky design principles, with the wheels protruding a couple of studs from the chassis, was being used even more comedically over at 4juniors: taking a go-kart from 4 to 8 studs wide, and trucks extending from 6 to 8 studs wide. 

With this emphasis on action-packed storytelling, the focus moved away from depicting a slice of life. Despite the feelings of action and excitement, some things were a little weird: the fire department was restricted to maritime activities, while the air was patrolled by the coast guard, flying a helicopter that, while not explicitly armed, certainly looked like it could be.

I found the fire brigade selection to be a little odd: 2 Fireboats, but no firetrucks or station. A Police Hovercraft and Coast Guard Helicopter: both were only a couple of carefully placed megaphones or camera elements away from becoming heavily-armed war machines. This was all a bit fanciful. But not as fanciful as the very real problems occurring in the company at the same time.

Time To Reset:

Sure… those kids look cute but is this what a toy manufacturer should be playing with?

Around this time, the LEGO Group were on the brink of financial collapse: the company had diversified its interests: also taking on clothes manufacture, video game production, and running theme parks, amongst other things.

The company started to find itself beset by financial challenges, and former McKinsey Consultant, Jorgen Vig Knudstrøp took over the roles of CEO and President, with a plan to get the company back on track. The LEGO Group moved back towards its core competencies: making construction toys while having other aspects of ‘LEGOness’ outsourced.

With the 4 Juniors sets bearing only a passing resemblance to trucks as they might look in real life, and World City also appearing to be more fanciful than ‘Real Life’, it was time to return the focus to ‘things kids see every day.

And so, as part of a ‘rein it in’ philosophy that saw the reduction in current elements in production, particularly those with limited application, a reset was pressed: World City and 4Juniors were cancelled, and the following year, we would see a reset of sets involving contemporary life, with the launch of LEGO City.

With the advent of LEGO City, we have seen a lot of changes over the last 17 years: While we have seen changes in model design, based on available elements, as well as new subthemes, perhaps the greatest change has been the way in which the sets have evolved to allow for enhanced storytelling and play.

The next chapter in this series will look at LEGO City, and how it has changed over the years. And, just possibly, we shall look into whether or not it is reasonable to consider LEGO City the tru successor to LEGO Town…

Do you have any treasured memories of LEGO Sets from this time? What appealed to you? Why not leave your comments below, and until next time,

Play Well!

As always, with these historically based articles, I am indebted to the set database at Brickset.com.

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