Wednesday 28 December 2011

Christmas Car-nage

As part of my ongoing efforts to indoctrinate my little boy in the joys of LEGO, I ended up getting him Cars Set 8679 Tokyo International Circuit for Christmas. OK, so he's barely four years old, and it's a rather large set with a recommended age of 7 - 12, but he's a huge fan of the Cars movies and I thought he'd enjoy building and playing with the 8 different cars within. Also, it's a set which lends itself to building in short bursts, which given the attention span of the average 4-year old, I felt was a must....

Predictably, it's been fairly slow going; I'm trying my hardest to sit on my hands and let him find all the parts and do all the building himself, only intervening when he asks me for help. I'm naturally quite impatient, so all this watching and guiding doesn't come easy - I'd rather be doing. When you break down the necessary steps that us AFOLs take for granted, however - identifying the parts needed for the next step of the instructions, using colour and shape matching skills to find the necessary parts amongst all the others, completing any sub-assemblies, and then figuring out how the new parts fit onto the existing build - it's actually pretty impressive that a 4-year old is capable of figuring it out at all, so I keep reminding myself of that.

I've previously written here and here about my unexpected enjoyment of the Cars sets, and at an admittedly early stage of the build, Set 8679 hasn't disappointed so far either. I've been particularly impressed with the LEGO rendition of Shu Todoroki, the Japanese entrant for the World Grand Prix as seen in the Cars 2 movie; you can see a picture of him below (click to enlarge).

Shu's dirty tyres are testament to his zoomability; literally microseconds after Shu was completed he was being zoomed around the room by my son, the rest of the set briefly forgotten, while I looked on enviously....

Compromises will generally have to be made when trying to reproduce most things in LEGO form, particularly at such a small scale, but I think the designers have done an excellent job here; you can see Shu in all his Pixar glory in the video clip below.

If you can't play the plug-in above then click here to access the clip via YouTube.

According to various sources on the 'net, the design of Shu Todoroki is based on the Toyota GT-ONE racer (below; pic from which competed in the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1998 and 1999.

It's a shame that Shu only appears in Set 8679, which is the biggest and most expensive set in the theme. Given that 2012 will bring at least 8 more Cars sets including standalone versions of Finn McMissile and Francesco Bernoulli which were previously only available as part of larger sets, LEGO had a second chance to release Shu Todoroki as a standalone set in 2012, but I guess he wasn't iconic enough to merit his own set. Unlike Jeff Gorvette, obviously (!)

Set 8679 also includes a version of Lightning McQueen (pic below).

Having previously bought, enjoyed and reviewed Set 8200 Radiator Springs Lightning McQueen, I was looking forward to comparing and contrasting the two versions. I was expecting different paint jobs, different 'facial expressions' and different rims, which you can see below (Set 8679 on the left, Set 8200 on the right).

What I wasn't expecting was differences in the actual design - the two versions have totally different rear ends (click pic to enlarge).

Give me the version with the fixed rear spoiler (8679) every time...

I'm well aware that some of you don't share my enthusiasm for the Cars theme; for those that like it, however, this set is already looking like a winner, just by virtue of the selection of cars it contains. Tomorrow we'll build the rest of the set....

Before signing off, I'd just like to remind everyone that hasn't yet voted for their favourite set of 2011 to do so ASAP - you'll find the poll at the top of the screen on the right, and you only have 3 more days before voting closes.

Last but definitely not least, I'd like to wish all readers a happy and prosperous New Year, and I'll be back with more of the same in 2012.

Cheers !

Sunday 25 December 2011

25th of December it is.....

Master Yoda and all at Gimme LEGO (i.e. me) wish you a Merry Christmas !

May all your Christmas dreams come true, and may the rattling sound beneath your tree be the set you always wanted rather than a problem with the central heating....

Hold on a minute - how did that get there ?! Looks like Santa's been....!

Wednesday 21 December 2011

The Gimme LEGO Awards 2011

So, Christmas and the New Year are upon us, and many are already looking forward to the first wave of 2012 sets which are starting to appear on shelves. It's therefore as good a time as any to reflect upon the past 12 months.

Overall, I think we've been blessed with some truly excellent sets in 2011, some interesting new themes, and a largely high standard of set design which puts many previous years to shame.

Here, then, for your delectation and debate, I present my own version of the Oscars - the Gimme LEGO Awards 2011 - which will hopefully give 2011 the send-off it deserves. These awards aren't voted for by a panel of experts, nor are they democratic, transparent, definitive or politically correct. They're just one AFOL's view of the best (and worst....) of 2011, and if you don't agree then tough, although there's always the comments field below if you want to challenge me on any of my selections.....

1 . Best Theme

Winner : Alien Conquest

I've made no secret of my love for this theme in previous blog postings (see here, for example) and it's therefore no surprise that Alien Conquest gets my vote for best LEGO theme of 2011.

No older LEGO fan could have failed to spot the cues linking these new sets to the classic space sets of the late 70's, but the ten sets which make up the 2011 Alien Conquest line-up don't just press the nostalgia buttons - many such as Set 7066 Earth Defense HQ (sic) and Set 7065 Alien Mothership are excellent sets in their own right.

The Alien Conquest sets feature a heady mix of bold colours, interesting designs, gimmicks such as light and sound bricks, tons of play features and even a face-hugging alien, not to mention vivid and deliciously retro box art.

Worryingly, there's no sign as yet of further Alien Conquest sets in the 2012 release schedules; let's just hope that we get a second installment in the Summer of 2012, and that the Alien Defence Unit get to fight another day...

2. Most Disappointing Theme

Winner : Star Wars

Contentious, perhaps, but if even a dyed-in-the-wool LEGO Star Wars fan like myself is shifting uncomfortably in his chair while reviewing the 2011 line-up then perhaps all is not as it should be.

For me, just too many of the 2011 Star Wars offerings are so-so sets based on the Clone Wars TV series or distinctly average remakes of classic ships, some of which are frankly almost identical to previous versions. As acknowledged in a previous posting here, with hordes of youngsters joining the hobby all the time, none of whom own the many previous versions of the iconic Star Wars craft and minifigures, I'm increasingly not the target demographic for these sets, but I still have to call it as I see it....

The 2011 line-up was by no means all bad - we were treated to some crackers such as Set 7962 Anakin Skywalker's and Sebulba's Podracers and Set 10221 Super Star Destroyer - but too many of the sets just didn't do it for me this year, and given the higher price of these sets compared with the average I really think they need to be giving us more of the 'wow' factor.

I can see some promising signs of creativity in 2012 such as the Planet Sets so let's just hope that I feel more enthusiastic when I review next year's offerings....

3. The "Medieval Market Village" award for Best Non-Licensed Set

Winner : Set 7066 Earth Defense HQ

This was hellishly tough to judge; despite LEGO's increasing focus on licensed properties, 2011 has been a fantastic year for unlicensed sets. In the end, the Earth Defense HQ set, which aside from the hideously misspelt name is a distillation of all that's great about the Alien Conquest theme and which is essentially 3 sets in one, wins this coveted prize by a nose.

Having chosen my favourite, however, I do need to acknowledge a number of other great sets which ran the winner very close. These include, but are by no means limited to, Set 10220 Volkswagen T1 Camper Van, Set 10219 Maersk Train and Set 8110 Unimog which are also superb. Honourable mention too for Atlantis Set 7985 City of Atlantis - an underrated set which is beautiful to look at, high on play value and packed with interesting parts for the discerning builder.

Set 10220 Volkswagen T1 Camper Van

Set 7985 City of Atlantis

Bravo to LEGO for providing us with such a wealth of magnificent unlicensed sets in 2011, and long may it continue.

4. Best Licensed Set

Winner : Set 10217 Diagon Alley

Much easier to judge this one - Diagon Alley stands out from the licensed competition like a beautiful shining diamond in a coal bunker. It shows that LEGO are still able to step up and well and truly do the business when it comes to the licensed sets. The design of the buildings brings to mind the revered modular building range, and the variety and quality of the minifigures means that there's something for everybody.

There were a few other licensed sets in 2011 that I thought rose above the average - the Star Wars Advent Calendar was unexpectedy good, Set 7962 Anakin Skywalker's and Sebulba's Podracers was excellent, I liked some of the Cars sets, and the Pirates of the Carribbean Queen Anne's Revenge set turned out better than I expected.

Set 7962 Anakin Skywalker's and Sebulba's Podracers

Set 4195 Queen Anne's Revenge

Overall, however, I didn't think that LEGO really hit the heights this year with the licensed sets compared with their unlicensed counterparts, and I'm hoping for better in 2012.

5. The "Phantom Menace" Award for Most Disappointing Set

Winner : Set 7877 Naboo Starfighter

If you can't, or won't, improve on a set that you've already released on a number of previous occasions then please just don't bother, or at least wait more than a couple of years before re-releasing it.... There's nothing inherently wrong with this set, just that it barely if at all improves upon the previous version. Just a waste of a product slot that could have been better used IMHO.

6. Best Minifigure

Winner : Captain Jack Sparrow with Tricorne

Man, this award was hard to judge; it's been a fantastic year for the LEGO minifigure and there have been a lot of contenders for this award, with some really neat collectable minifigs released in 2011, not to mention a preponderance of high quality figures included in sets this year. All that having been said, I can still remember how impressed I was when I first saw the Jack Sparrow minifigure above. Seldom has a figure better captured the essence of the character it's supposed to represent, and it was a real stand-out for me, so it gets the gong.

Honourable mention must also go to this year's Star Wars minifigures which have been excellent - multiple remakes of old figures which have frankly blown their predecessors out of the water (I just wish I could say the same about the sets they came with....). I've also really liked some of the figures from the Pharaoh's Quest theme such as the Anubis Guard and Flying Mummy, not to mention the likes of the Hazmat Guy and the Punk Rocker collectable minifigures from Series 4, and many others.

And having had an early look at Series 6 of the collectable minifigures, I think 2012 could be even better....

7. The "Better than Expected" Award

Winner : the Cars theme

I initially had no intention whatsoever of getting any of the Cars sets at all - honest ! I figured the sets would be dumbed down for a younger audience and that I wouldn't find them of interest. And then I made the fatal error of buying the smallest sets in the theme - 8200 Radiator Springs Lightning McQueen and 8201 Radiator Springs Classic Mater - just out of curiosity, and realised that they actually weren't half bad at all....

Colourful, fun, lots of printed parts rather than stickers, and a more than passable rendition of the subject material. So I bought another set, and then another, and before I knew it I was collecting them all.

Runner up goes to the 2011 Star Wars Advent Calendar. I wasn't expected much from this either, and was therefore pleasantly surprised by the high quality of the contents.

8. Most Welcome LEGO-Related Announcement

Winner : Lord of the Rings and Hobbit licenses

This late-breaking announcement snatched victory from July's Superheroes reveal, and it's a dream come true for countless AFOLs. Honestly, were it not for the fact that in space no one can hear you scream, I reckon that the collective outpourings of joy from millions of LEGO fans around the globe when this tie-up was announced could probably have been heard on Mars....

Some of us have been pleading for this tie-in for years, and like a benevolent uncle LEGO finally came up with the goods. Clearly we'll have to reserve judgment somewhat until we see what LEGO will actually do with these licenses, but for millions this was still a superb Christmas present.

9. Gimme LEGO Reader's Choice Award

OK, so now it's your turn..... You'll have seen a poll on the right side of the page - 11 sets, some licensed and some unlicensed, which I consider to be some of the highlights of 2011. Cast your votes - one person, one vote - and at midnight on 31st December the poll will close and we'll have our winner.... I've also included a "None of the above" option - choose this if you feel strongly about a set that isn't listed and then please drop me an e-mail via the contact button on the top right of the screen or leave a comment below letting me know your unlisted choice; if enough people go for a specific, unlisted set then that set will, of course, be the winner.

Happy voting, and here's to a 2012 that keeps up the high standard !

Update 1st January 2012 : voting has now closed !

Wednesday 14 December 2011

The best things....

.....come in small packages, apparently. And having spent the last couple of weeks working my way through the 2011 LEGO Star Wars Advent Calendar I'd have to agree.

Better than expected so far....
Honestly, I didn't have particularly high hopes for this - more expensive than your average LEGO advent calendar and a guaranteed best seller regardless of its quality, LEGO could have been forgiven for going through the motions somewhat. I was therefore pleasantly surprised by some of the gems within....

Highlight for me so far has been the splendid Slave 1 (pic below - click to enlarge) that was lurking behind the door on the 5th December. It's a cracker ! It takes some real design expertise to make an instantly recognisable and more than passably accurate rendition of such an iconic ship with only 20 pieces, but whoever designed this has really nailed it I reckon.

A close second has been the superb X-Wing (below), again really nailing the look and feel of the subject matter, right down to the appearance of R2-D2 who is cunningly disguised as a blue 1 x 1 round plate ! The foils even move, just to add to the effect, and all this has been achieved using just 23 pieces.

Then there's the Republic Cruiser (below), which was behind door number one and first raised my hopes of what to expect from this advent calendar. Once again it's minimal in the extreme and yet manages to capture the essence of the ship very nicely IMHO.

Another of my favourites has been the Snowspeeder (below). Just 17 pieces, and once again a better likeness than we have any right to expect from such a miniscule piece count. With a small flash of orange and smaller guns it'd have been just about perfect I reckon.....

In addition to the models above, so far we've also had a passable Imperial Shuttle fashioned from just 9 pieces, and a decent looking Homing Spider Droid. Looking ahead, the box art promises a few more neat looking ships including the Millennium Falcon, Republic Gunship, TIE Fighter and A-Wing. Honestly, I don't think I've looked forward to opening my advent calendar this much since I was a kid !

It's not all sweetness and light, however. On some days the reward has been a minifigure rather than a model, and thus far the minifigures we've received have been a bit of a mixed bag, to be honest. No complaints about Chewbacca, but Nute Gunray (below) is a bit of an odd inclusion, and did we really need yet another battle droid or unnamed rebel pilot ? Given the very reasonable decision to include some minifigs alongside the small models, the calendar is crying out for the inclusion of some truly iconic figures such as Han Solo, Luke, Leia, Darth Vader, R2-D2 and C3-PO. Perhaps some or all of these minifigs are in fact lurking unseen behind the as-yet unopened doors leading up to Christmas Eve, but I'm not holding my breath.....

Nute Gunray : Why ?
Overall, however, this advent calendar has been an unexpected but extremely welcome win so far, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it.

Webmaster extraordinaire Huw Millington is unveiling the Star Wars and City Advent Calendars day by day over at Brickset, so click here to check out what's behind the doors between now and Christmas. I've also just realised that the excellent FBTB is doing something similar - we're all at it ! Still, IMHO this calendar is worthy of the attention, so far at least. Let's just hope the quality is maintained for the next week and a half.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Better late than never

I've a terrible habit of buying up sets that I like the look of and then forgetting about them. Probably the best example of this is my Star Wars Ultimate Collector Series X-Wing Fighter which was bought for £50 in the sales back in the year 2000, stuffed in a cupboard, forgotten about, and then stumbled across years later when we were moving house. Anyway, this tendency explains why I bought Set 7592 Construct-a-Buzz from LEGO S@H at the full retail price back in January 2010, and also why it's been stored unopened ever since. Worse still, the set has subsequently been discounted on a number of occasions, during which time I've picked up 2 more copies. And I haven't built those either....

The upside of all this hoarding is however that I have a large and varied stockpile of shiny new sets stretching back in time, and that I'm therefore spoiled for choice when I have the urge to build something. I'm not sure why I had the urge to build Buzz this week, but I did, and there he was, patiently waiting for me (below) wedged between a V-Wing Fighter and a bunch of LEGO exclusives.

Set 7592 Construct-a-Buzz waiting patiently....
It wasn't quite as simple as just diving in and starting to build, however; since the set first appeared at retail a couple of years back the packaging has undergone a change (for the worst, IMHO) as you can see in the picture below (click to enlarge). The attractive "blue sky with clouds" background of the early sets has given way to a plain white background, so which to open ?

It transpired that two of the three sets I own are of the plain white background variety, so it was one of those that got the nod and was carefully opened with a craft knife.

Inside the box were the instruction manual, a couple of bags numbered '1' and '2', and a third unmarked bag containing Buzz's head and the two (carefully packaged) parts which make up his helmet and visor.

The 62-page instruction manual (above) is about the size of a DVD box and features the same artwork as the front of the set box. The construction steps are extremely clear and easy to follow, and there's an inventory of all the parts on the last page. I found the sticker sheet (below) inside the instruction manual, which helped to ensure that it was intact on arrival; I'm not sure if its placement within the instructions was deliberate or just a fluke, but it was very welcome either way.....

The set contains just one minifigure - the three-eyed Toy Story alien (below) - and as usual the first part of the build involves the construction of said minifig. This alien minifig has appeared in a total of five sets to date, including a magnet set and a promo polybag, so it can hardly be considered rare, but it's cute all the same.

Once minifig construction is complete - my 3-year old insisted on doing this - it's time to dive into Bag 1 in earnest. A pleasing selection of lime green pieces and a few fiddly but necessary stickers later and Buzz's torso, head and helmet are complete. Bag 2 contains the parts required to construct Buzz's arms, legs and wings, and after what seemed like just a few sweet minutes the build was complete (pics below - click to enlarge).

First impressions of the completed model are fairly positive, but with some reservations. Buzz is more poseable than I had expected (pic below), with articulation points in his ankles, hips, wrists and shoulders allowing some degree of movement. It would have been even better if he could bend his arms at the elbow, and I don't think this would have been impossible to achieve, but unfortunately his elbows are fixed. In addition. his torso can rotate at the waist and his wings pivot independently. Coupled with a helmet which opens, a head which rotates, and even a flick-fire missile on his right arm which passes for a laser (looks OK, although doesn't work particularly well), we're spoiled with respect to moving parts and play features I think.

On the downside, his proportions don't look quite right to me. His waist is too narrow, and  to my eyes Buzz looks more like a mech than a square-jawed cartoon guy in a flying suit.... I wasn't sure if I was being unfair on LEGO Buzz, so I dug out my son's talking Buzz Lightyear toy and got a picture of 'little and large' side by side (below) so I could compare and contrast.

The wide spacing of the legs, together with a waist just 4 studs wide, really doesn't do LEGO Buzz any favours.... I'm wondering if the spacing of the legs was a compromise to ensure greater stability, but I guess we'll never know for sure. At least his head and torso look good, however - no complaints there - and from the front at least his wings look pretty good too. From the back, however, Buzz looks somewhat plain and perhaps even a little unfinished.

Another criticism is the printed part below which is not up to the quality standards that I'm accustomed to. Thankfully I know I can pick up the phone and call LEGO's excellent customer services people and they'll send me a replacement part, no questions asked, so no harm done.

So in conclusion, LEGO Buzz is clearly far from perfect, but it's still a reasonable effort overall I think. I certainly don't regret buying him, and indeed I've found it rather therapeutic to gaze at his manic expression during times of stress....

At 205 pieces and with an MRSP of £20.99 Buzz is pretty much bang on the 'guide price' of 10 pence a piece. Even so, £20.99 seems on the pricey side for this set, although with all the discounting going on right now you won't have to pay that. At the time of writing, you can buy Buzz for £14.99 (29% off MRSP) from Amazon in the UK (click here) and for $22.00 (12% off MRSP) from Amazon in the US (click here). 

"To infinity... and beyond !"