Welcome back to our continuing journey through the decades of the history of the LEGO Group, as we approach the 90th anniversary of the company on August 10, 2022.
Today, we enter the 1990s, the so called System Era, where we started to see playthemes diverge from the standard Town, Castle and Space. The company also starts to introduce new technologies, as well as embarking onto the World Wide Web.
Reaching out to the Girls
We have already discussed the way in which LEGO Town diverged in the 90’s, spinning off related, but seperate themes such as Paradisa and Divers. While many of LEGO Playthemes of the time might appear to be aimed primarily at boys, there were a number that were aimed especially at the girls market: the previously mentioned Paradisa, as well as Belville.
Paradisa took a world of perpetual island holiday at minifigure scale, and washed it with pastel tones of pink, grey and green- a world of beach bars, cabanas and celebrity parties; jet skis and windsurfers, where the women looked glamorous (or at least wore lipstick) and men with pencil moustaches served drinks.
But Paradisa wasn’t the only theme that was trying to attract girls at that time. Minifigures are great for some people, but others might like something more akin to a more typically dimensioned human, or at least a traditional doll.
The theme started off based in the real world, but around 1999 it started to drift into a fantasy world of Kings and Queens, and occasional folklore and Fairytales. Belville continued to see new sets released until 2009, but was always a little off scale compared to minifigures. (Fun fact: Belville heads use the same ball and socket connections seen with Technic and Fabuland Figures…)
In parallel with Belville, we saw a new Scala Range (the name was previously used for a line of buildable Fashion accessories around 1979-1980) – featuring larger dolls, as well as furniture and dollhouses – run from 1997 through to 2001. These dolls, and even the stud system used in the doll houses, were perhaps symptomatic of problems that the company is to face going forward.
Changes were afoot with LEGO Technic during this era: New elements were introduced allowing the introduction of Fibreoptic lighting, featured in the 8480 Space Shuttle model in 1997.
In the meantime, the building techniques were about to undergo a paradigm shift, seeing a shift from studded Technic bricks, to sets based essentially on studless beams and panels. Compare 8880 Super Car from 1994 – last of the great Studded Technic cars, with the 8448 Super Street Sensation of 1999.
Moving towards 1998, we see the arrival of LEGO Mindstorms Robotics Invention set – emerging from the partnership with MIT, this is a robotics system involving a programmable brick, as well as motors and sensors. A lack of documentation for the system sees it being reverse engineered by fans, and the role of adult fans starts to be recognised by the company.
Launch of the Website
In 1996, LEGO.com was launched. Initially, a fairly simple affair, it has, over the years incorporated Catalogs and the online store, as well as forums and building ideas. Activity has changed a bit over the years, but there is no doubt that it has come a long way over this time…
The Age Of Licences
Up until this time, all LEGO Themes were based on internal ideas and intellectual property. Stories set up in the catalogs might be followed up in magazines published for children, or video games. But such stories may not be accessible to people who don’t have a grounding in the existing lore, making it difficult to attract a new audience for the product. As the late 90s approached, a partnership with Lucasfilm was announced in time for the forthcoming release of the Phantom Menace – the first of the Star Wars Prequel movies. This deal included material from the original trilogy. Kids, and adults, had been creating adventures in. The Star Wars universe for decades, but at last the LEGO Group was going to be bringing models tying into the franchise.
Hot on the heels, in 2001 we saw the introduction of LEGO Harry Potter, bringing the sets from the movies based on JK Rowling’s books. We have previously discussed some of the advances in figure design that occurred in the years that followed – certainly some of these changes – alternate head molds; short legs and, ultimately, more accurate skin tones were driven by the development of these licensed themes.
Moving forward, we see Star Wars acting as a default Space theme, and perhaps Harry Potter acting as a default Castle theme. We will continue to see in house Castle and Space themes developed going forward: but perhaps as years go by, they are less and less dominant.
Going forward, not all story-telling was driven by external IP. While Star Wars had provided a useful boost to the company’s gradually declining bottom line, it was apparent that this was not going to be enough going forward, and a proposal had been made for an original, multi platform, story driven theme: stories on the website, comic books and video games. This proposal developed into Bionicle.
Set in a science fantasy universe featuring a diversity of cyborgs, the main story depicts the exploits of the Toa, heroic beings with elemental powers whose sworn duty is to protect the Matoran, the prime populace of their world, and reawaken the Great Spirit Mata Nui, their god-like guardian who was forced into a coma by the actions of the evil Makuta.Wikipedia entry, accessed 7th August 2022
The theme was massively successful, raising £100 Million in its first year along. With the story spread across many platforms, boys especially found the stories appealing. Moving away from tradition Brick built construction to techniques with a greater basis in technic, the buildable characters provided a good balance between building and playability. The theme began to decline after about 10 years, perhaps in part due to the back catalog of Lore and backstory necessary for newcomers to properly understand what was going on.
Join Us Tomorrow
Next, we continue into the 2000’s – Licences develop further, the company develops its own retail chain and the first sets with a specific focus on AFOLs are released, but not before the company has a little financial trouble….
While you are here, there is still time to join the 90 years of play classic themes challenge on Instagram, hosted by myself and Jen from @brickfambuilds. You can find further details here…