Now this is something completely different, yeah. But it’s something I probably should have written about once at least, which I’m not sure I have in the eight years I’ve written on this blog. Because as much as video and PC games were a massive part of my childhood, so were the LEGO-brand brick toys I had as a kid. Back in the early 90s when the middle and high schoolers were listening to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and moping around or whatever the fuck they did, I was still a babby attending kindergarten, and while at home I mostly remember putting on mock battles with the various Lego sets I had (which I’ll refer to them as from now on — I know it’s properly written “LEGO” but I’m getting tired of holding down the shift key.)
And I did have a lot of these sets. These were scaled and priced accordingly from very small sets for a few dollars all the way up to massive, complex sets priced at over a hundred. Most of the sets I had as a kid were a collection of the smaller and mid-sized ones, which was fine, since they could easily be thrown together while you were playing to form larger collections of vehicles or buildings or whatever. They could also be taken apart and rebuilt into new creations, which was probably part of the appeal of Lego to parents who wanted a less “mindless” and more productive/creative toy for their kids (not that all those other toys were really “mindless”, but that’s how a lot of parents thought of them anyway.)
However, I missed out on several mostly very expensive, large, deluxe sets that caught my eye in the dedicated Lego catalog that came to the house every so often. I’m thankful now that I wasn’t so spoiled as a child that I could get whatever I wanted — though I certainly still got more than I deserved. Even so, to this day I can look back at the following sets and remember the vague sense of sadness I had at not owning them. So if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to go back to my six year-old self for a day at least and remember what he wanted most out of life, back when it was a hell of a lot less complicated.
I’ll be upfront here: most of the sets in this list will be space-themed. I was obsessed with space exploration and astronomy as a kid, and while I’ve cooled off on it a bit since then, I still have a strong interest in those areas to this day. So it makes sense that I focused on Lego’s Space theme line of sets.
One big difference between modern Lego sets and older 80s/90s sets you might notice is the total lack of IP licensing in the older ones. Back then, we didn’t have any Star Wars or similar movie or game tie-in sets — we had to make do with Lego’s original creations. But they worked perfectly well for us, because Lego did a pretty good job coming up with different factions within its wider themes like Space, Castle, and Pirates that we could make up our own stories about.
This particular set was part of the “M-Tron” line — these guys were meant to be space miners or something, at least from what I could gather. The gimmick with M-Tron was that their sets incorporated real magnets that you could use to stick containers to their ships and rovers. Seems like a simple thing today, but it was cool at the time. The design of this rover in particular was also unique, with its massive tires and special cockpit shield or case or whatever you’d call it.
Now here was a cool damn set. This one was part of the Blacktron line of Space sets — this line was also around in the late 80s, a few years before my time, and went through a redesign. I actually prefer their older designs, but those sets were out of print by the time I was buying (i.e. asking my parents to buy) Lego sets.
But it was all right, because the new Blacktron sets were also nice, and this ship was one of the best-looking. Looks very Star Wars Empire-inspired with its geometrical glass cockpits. This ship seated two, I’d imagine one pilot and one co-pilot, or maybe one pilot and one gunner — I don’t think the middle part of it actually housed any minifigures, though you could probably shove a third in there if you really wanted to.
While I didn’t own either of the above sets, I did have some smaller sets from each faction, and I imagined these guys were a faction of space pirates attacking the M-Tron miners who just wanted to drill and extract ore from space rocks in peace, or whatever it was they were doing with those magnets. I think I did try to build something like this set out of pieces I had from smaller ones as well, but it didn’t quite work out. I wasn’t that great of an engineer as a child, and I’ve probably gotten significantly worse since.
As I wrote above, I prefer some of the older late 80s Space Lego sets to the ones that were in print when I was a kid. But I was even a massive hipster when I was six years old, because the same was true then — I much preferred old Space Police sets like this one from 1989 to the redesigned early 90s ones that had a far uglier color scheme and less cool designs.
The problem in this case wasn’t the price, because this isolated space prison was pretty modestly priced — it was simply that it was out of print, and if it wasn’t on store shelves we basically couldn’t buy it since there wasn’t an eBay back then. So I couldn’t play out my story concept of a space pirate being arrested and awaiting trial in space court for all the space crimes he committed. Or maybe it’s more of an Edmond Dantès situation, where he was wrongfully imprisoned in this space Chateau d’If and he has to break out, steal a ship, and fly back to his home planet to exact revenge against everyone who wronged him. Though as a kid, I think it was really just that landing pad/dock thing that appealed to me most because it looked like you could actually slide a ship in there.
Of course, I didn’t just collect Space Lego sets — I also branched out into the Castle theme with its medieval knights and Robin Hood-style forest bandits and into the more mundane Town sets. But my second-favorite theme after Space had to be Pirates, because the idea of being a pirate sailing the high seas and securing booty and all that stuff just has that natural appeal, especially to a boy my age at the time (of course, these being the nice jolly Pirates of the Caribbean-style pirates, not the actual ones who very often weren’t so nice.)
While I did have a lot of pirate-themed sets, including a full ship (the Caribbean Clipper, pretty nice too) the best Lego pirate ship for me still has to be this Black Seas Barracuda. Firstly, what a great name. You might imagine an actual pirate calling his ship the Barracuda, though I don’t know if any actually did. But secondly, just look at the damn thing, because it is deluxe as hell, with two masts, gun ports, a boat for sending probably threatening messages to other ships, a cabin that opened up in the back, and a full complement of crew members including a female pirate (Anne Bonny or Mary Read maybe?) and a monkey, and I think there might have been a parrot in there too.
This set really showed how excellent some of these older Lego sets could be. I especially regret that I never owned this, because the one ship I did have was an “Imperial Guard” themed one — I’m pretty sure it was supposed to be a French ship considering its blue flag with its fleur-de-lys-looking symbols slightly resembling the old French royal banner, but there were sets featuring clearly British redcoats and Spanish Armada guys as well. It would have been nice to have a proper ship-to-ship battle with two of these ships, but my pirates were stuck attacking the scurvy royal and imperial dogs on shitty rafts and boats. Sorry, guys.
I should also note that there was a later pirate ship, the Skull’s Eye Schooner from 1993, that looked really nice as well. But looking back, it bugs me a bit today that the designers printed the skull-and-crossbones right on the sail like that. Looks cool enough to be sure, but real pirates would never have announced themselves in that way — they had plain sails and flew false flags to deceive their targets and any naval ships or pirate hunters that might be around, only raising the Jolly Roger when they wanted to scare a target into surrendering without a chase. Which is something the Barracuda gets right, though I don’t know if that much thought really went into it.
Out of all the themes, I think the Town was my least favorite just because it felt a bit mundane. Why act out stories in the modern-day real world when I could be playing with knights, pirates, and space warriors instead? I did have a few Town sets, however, though this seaport wasn’t one of them because it was really just too expensive.
While I preferred to spend my birthday/Christmas credit on those other themes, I liked the idea of a set that contained several components like this one did, with the tanker, Coast Guard-looking ship, truck, and moving crane or whatever that thing is called. With all that, you could act out a really exciting dock unloading procedure complete with customs officials present to make sure no contraband is on board and all the necessary taxes have been paid. My idea probably would have been to have my pirate ship (which I didn’t own, see above) going through a magical time portal to the present day, then attacking this port and stealing the modern ships for their own that they’d then have to figure out how to operate without the use of sails. That might make for a good science fiction story, actually.
There were other sets I coveted, but I think these have to top my list. My only other real Lego-related regret is that I never truly appreciated the unique aesthetic of the Paradisa subset of the Town theme. These were the Lego sets clearly designed “for girls” featuring a lot of pastel colors and pleasant settings like cafés and resorts. Now I can see it would have added some nice spice to my very small town, but at the time anything for girls was anathema of course. What can you do.