Wednesday 27 June 2012

What's that coming over the hill....?

I've not made any secret of my increasingly "scattergun" approach to collecting LEGO; it was Star Wars that drew me back in after my lengthy Dark Ages, but my quest for Star Wars sets quickly expanded to encompass Indiana Jones, LEGO Exclusives (particularly the modular buildings) and Harry Potter, and before long I seemed to be taking a punt on pretty much anything and everything....

One theme which I've so far steadfastly resisted has been Time Cruisers, however. This theme, which consisted of a total of just 9 sets, had a brief run in 1996 and 1997 before sinking with barely a trace, and the sets look completely bizarre. Take for instance Set 6492 Hypno Cruiser (picture below - click to enlarge) which was also available in the U.S. as Set 1853. I mean, just look at it - a schoolboy and a professor driving a multi-wheeled vehicle which is propelled by a combination of what look like dragon wings, jet engines, a helicopter rotor and a dragster engine. In space. Pursued by a monkey. Someone must have been having a laugh.

Set 6492 Hypno Cruiser : Bizarre...
You need more proof ? Ok, then - check out Set 6495 Time Tunnelator. Honestly, it almost defies description, but I guess I can try... Kind of like a genetic fusion of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, an antique aeroplane and a dragon. With wooden beer barrels on the side. I have to be honest, these Time Cruisers sets hurt my brain and while I generally don't shirk a challenge, I've not yet dared to dip my toe into this theme.

When I saw the first images of the new Monster Fighters theme, I have to confess that my first thought was "Time Cruisers". Consider for instance Set 9464 The Vampyre Hearse (picture below - click to enlarge). Maybe it was the dragster engine that brought to mind the Time Cruisers sets, but the whole concept of a dragster hearse, its engine secured to the bodywork by bones, seems entirely bizarre. Or is it just me ?

The Vampyre Hearse isn't an isolated case, either. Take Set 9467 The Ghost Train (picture below). I could just about get my head round the plane from the set being piloted by a Vampyre Hunter in a Van Helsing-type scenario, but just check that train out ! From the cow-catcher and Boo-esque diabolical grinning face on the front to the bones and the dragon wings, it's utterly baffling....

Anyway, I finally got my first sight of the Monster Fighters sets "in the flesh" at the London Westfield LEGO store a couple of weeks back. The store had the full range of sets on the shelves, and at least one set built and on display. After spending a few minutes debating the wisdom of dipping my toe into yet another new LEGO theme, I eventually decided to get my wallet out and take a closer look at one of the sets.

Set 9461 The Swamp Creature is the entry-level Monster Fighters set, and you can see the box above. Given the subject matter of the theme, the artwork is suitably dark and moonlit, with a spooky font spelling out the name of the theme. Opening the box reveals a small, folded instruction booklet and two sealed bags of pieces. There are no stickers in this set.

You can see a few of the more interesting pieces from the set in the picture above (click to enlarge). No parts are unique to the set, although the trans-neon green Moonstone, also known as "Rock Stepped with Swamp Pattern" (or just "ice lolly" as far as I'm concerned) can only be found in one other set. Dark green sea grass has been around since 2009 but this is only the fifth set it's ever appeared in; this is also the case for the sand green modified 1 x 2 plate with clip on top which I also highlighted in my recent review of the Ninjago Fangpyre Mech set. You get a smattering of flat silver pieces including five 1 x 2 tiles with grille which have only previously appeared in 3 other sets. I've yet to grow tired of the grooved 2 x 2 round bricks, although you unfortunately only get one of them in this set, in light bluish grey.

The front of the instruction booklet (above) is pretty much identical to the box art, apart from the absence of a close-up of the swamp creature. The booklet is 27 pages long, which seems a lot given how small the set is; each stage of the build gets a parts call-out, and there's an inventory of parts and a couple of pages of advertising for the LEGO club and a LEGO survey at the end. Love 'em or hate 'em, flick-fire missiles are here to stay, even in sets as small as this; don't fire them at anyone's head, kids, or it'll end in tears, apparently....

And so to the build; first up as ever are the minifigures, of which there are two - the Swamp Creature, who is exclusive to this set, and Frank Rock, who appears in two sets including this one.

With his scaly printed torso and legs, webbed head and red-tinged fish eyes the Swamp Creature (below) is every bit the corny matinee monster of my youth and I think he looks great ! He also features extensive back printing and a webbed fin on the back of his head.

Below you can see what's underneath that goofy rubbery head-piece - big, staring eyes and sharp teeth ! He definitely looks more scary this way. Given that his face is largely covered by the head-piece, there's no back-printed alternative expression, just a few more scales.

Monster Fighter Frank Rock (below) is notable for his Elvis-style quiff, cheesy grin and cool shades, although if you prefer your heroes to be pensive and considered rather than cocky and brash then you can reverse his head in order to get a different look. The printing on the torso and legs is classic LEGO Adventurers fare, and it's nice and detailed. His legs are olive green, which is an interesting new addition to the LEGO colour palette this year.

Frank's preferred mode of transport is an Everglades-style airboat (below - click to enlarge), albeit one which is loaded out with considerably more weaponry then you'd likely see on any airboat in the Florida Keys... As well as a pair of flick-fire missiles, the craft also features a couple of front-mounted clips to hold Frank's revolvers.

The set is completed by a small section of suitably swamp-like scenery, which includes the neon green ice lolly Moonstone. LEGO has built the Monster Fighters backstory around the search for a number of different coloured Moonstones, each of which is hidden in a different location. I'm assuming that the fish is destined to be eaten by the Swamp Creature; not sure if the frog is on the menu too or just passing by.

I suspect that most will buy this set for the minifigures alone, but the airboat and scenery elements do add some modest play value, not to mention making the set a little more interesting for folks like me for whom minifigures aren't the be-all and end-all.

In conclusion, it's a neat little set, and a veritable bargain at £4.99 / $6.99 when you consider that you get two minifigures, one of them unique to the set, and a handful of parts for your money. I particularly love the kitsch Swamp Creature minifig... The downside is that it's whetted my appetite for the theme as a whole, which means more expense; I can also blame the display model of Set 9468 Vampyre Castle at the Westfield store for that - it looked amazing and is a must-buy set for me.

Outside of the LEGO Brand Stores, most retailers haven't yet started selling the Monster Fighters sets at time of writing, although some third party merchants are selling them on Amazon in the U.S. and Europe at inflated prices. No hurry - they'll be along soon enough at or below RRP, but if you really can't wait I'm sure you can find some old Time Cruisers sets on eBay to fill the time...

Set 9468 Vampyre Castle

Wednesday 20 June 2012


It's not unusual to hear people complain that LEGO sets contain too many specialised parts these days. The argument goes that not only are such parts little use for anything other than the set that they came in, but that they also stifle creativity because people no longer need to figure out how to build things out of basic bricks anymore. Licensed themes such as Star Wars are often held to be particularly bad in this regard, although for me the City theme with its reliance on POOP is just as guilty. We also shouldn't forget that LEGO have been including large, custom parts in sets for decades; I still have a number of train bases from Set 171 Train Set without Motor to this day, for instance.

Anyway, on a trip to the U.S. a few months back I had a free evening and decided to make a pilgrimage to the local LEGO brand store which was just a short cab ride away. While I was there I made a discovery that should bring joy to the heart of any dyed-in-the-wool LEGO traditionalists out there, those people for whom anything other than basic bricks are blasphemy...

I found the fellow above (click pic to enlarge) near the Pick-a-Brick (PAB) wall, packaged in a small PAB cup. He's made almost entirely out of basic bricks, with 3 slopes and a green 6 x 8 plate thrown in for good measure, and you can't get much more basic than that... I was provided with the building instructions when I went to the counter to pay my $7.99, basically just a sheet of A4 paper with a series of colour-printed building steps. Not great quality, but just about good enough to follow.

Since arriving back in the UK, I've learned that the Rabbit above is one of a series of "Limited Edition" PAB models that LEGO have recently started to sell in their brand stores. I haven't been able to find much information about them, although Brickset has added a number of these "sets" to its database (click here to view them) and is continuing to add more information as it comes in. It looks like the Rabbit may have been the first of these PAB sets, available for purchase during April 2012 before being superceded by a model of an Artist in May. All of the sets follow the same basic pattern - crude, blocky sculptures fashioned from basic bricks available in the PAB wall, packaged in standard PAB containers, and supplied with either A4 colour-printed building instructions or no instructions at all depending on which store you visit....

Crude or not, I find these models quite appealing, and I've therefore also picked up a couple of others since. I found the Batman and Robin model below during a visit to the London Westfield LEGO store last week. This is only available during the month of June and came in a large PAB cup, at a cost of £11.

As far as I'm aware, this is the only PAB model so far to come with stickers - the Batman and Robin logos that you can see applied in the picture above. I'm told that some people buying this set in UK brand stores haven't been provided with building instructions; while I was given a set of instructions (pictures below - click to enlarge) it was mighty hard to follow them... I eventually had to resort to using a magnifying glass to figure out some of the building steps, but before you start accusing me of being an old git with failing eyesight, be aware that even my 4 year old son (who did most of the building) struggled to make sense of them either, so it's not just me....

The building instructions for at least some of these models are also available online; you can find the instructions plus a parts inventory for Batman and Robin here, and they're thankfully much easier to follow than their printed counterparts...

The other PAB model I have is the Royal Guard. This one was produced to celebrate Her Majesty the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and was only available in stores between June 2nd and 5th, priced at £6. Given the limited availability, I have atkinsar to thank for grabbing this one for me - thanks, Andy ! As ever, the model was packaged in a sealed PAB cup (below).

The model wasn't supplied with building instructions on this occasion, although given my experience with the Batman and Robin instructions maybe that's not such a bad thing... Instructions are available online here, and you can see a sample page below, including an inventory of parts.

Consistent with the other PAB models, it's a very quick and simple build, and you can see a picture of the finished model below. Although predominantly made up of basic bricks, two 1 x 2 plates and two 1 x 2 tiles with grille make an appearance, not to mention a handful of 2 x 2 45 degree slopes for the huge bearskin cap.

So what to make of these models ? Well, they're not everybody's cup of tea, that's for sure; a 'prominent AFOL' who will remain nameless (you know who you are !) recently remarked "I fail to see the attraction of these. They are just piles of basic bricks badly put together", and he's not the first person I've heard make comments like that. I don't think that completists or collectors will get too excited about these models either - they lack any model-specific packaging (or even paper instructions in some cases), don't contain any unusual or rare parts, and can in fact be easily recreated by anybody with a spare PAB cup and access to a few basic bricks, with nobody being any the wiser that they weren't actually bought in-store; the only hard-to-source aspect of the models is the Batman and Robin logo stickers, and even these will no doubt appear on Bricklink in due course. The models are not even particularly good value for money - you pay the same for these models as you would for a cup of PAB parts of your own choosing, and most people could and would squeeze a lot more pieces into a PAB cup than you get with any of these models.

And yet....all that having been said, I do think they have a certain block-tastic, old-school charm and I can't help liking them, although I get the feeling that I may be in the minority. I will likely pick up more of them, although probably wouldn't go too far out of my way to do so. Interestingly, a few people I know who aren't LEGO fans have told me that they liked the models when they saw them, so perhaps they may appeal to the more casual or occasional LEGO buyer who wanders into a brand store and spots them. Although whether they'd be able to decypher the paper instructions is anyone's guess, assuming they're even given any...

Thursday 14 June 2012


OK, so it goes something like this - five minutes to kill, so I fire up my browser, open up eBay and do a half-hearted search for LEGO auction lots that have been newly listed or which are finishing soon. Usually I survive this unscathed, my browsing experience dominated by a ton of overpriced listings by hopelessly over-optimistic people who've heard that LEGO is a great way to make a quick buck, or maybe a torrent of poly bag listings fresh from the latest UK newspaper giveaway. But every now and again my eye settles on something which I would never have searched for specifically, but which I nevertheless immediately take a shine to. So I click the button to watch the item, and then maybe I'll bid on it, and sometimes I even win it. Dangerous, this idle eBay browsing, or eBrowsing as I've come to call it - seriously bad for your wealth.

I have to confess that this is far from being a rare occurrence - my collection contains rather too many sets that I've randomly stumbled upon while eBrowsing the LEGO listings and ended up buying. It was only last week that I took possession of my latest eBrowsing purchase, and it prompted me to have a think about what other LEGO I've bought while idly flicking through the eBay listings....

First on my random purchase list is Set 6390 Main Street (above), released in 1982 and containing 591 pieces. I was never even aware that this set existed until I stumbled upon a listing for it on eBay a couple of weeks ago. I've always been a big fan of the LEGO Town Plan-type sets both old and new and Set 6390 reminded me a bit of those I guess. I expected that the auction for a boxed and almost complete example would go well beyond what I was willing to pay, but a relatively modest maximum bid was unexpectedly sufficient to secure the item so it's now in my possession. Watch out for a review of this rare set when I eventually get round to it - it's a good 'un !

Next up is another recent acquisition, Set 182 Train Set with Motor (above) from 1975. It's like the cool older brother of Set 171 Train Set without Motor which was the first LEGO train I ever owned, so when I stumbled upon an eBay listing for Set 182 complete with box and instructions a couple of months back it shouted "Buy Me" and I had no choice but to bid.... A few days and one auction win later and it was winging its way to my front door. It's been a bit of a restoration job, to be honest - quite a few missing pieces, and some of them quite hard to find - but thanks to the saviour that is Bricklink the set is now complete and awaiting its turn in the build queue.

Then there's Set 1054 Stena Line Ferry (above) from 1999 which I picked up a couple of years back. I'm not quite sure why I bought this one; I can only assume that it was out of a sense of nostalgia for trips to continental Europe that I used to go on with my family as a boy. Why I wanted reminding of the many unhappy hours I spent throwing up over the side of the Dover to Ostend ferry I'll probably never know, but nostalgia's a funny thing.... Still, I can console myself with the fact that I didn't have to pay much for it - just £4.99 plus shipping for a mint, boxed example - so at least I didn't break the bank to get it.

Moving swiftly on we have Set 2556 Ferrari Formula 1 Racing Car. Perhaps not all that surprising a purchase given my interest in cars in general, but still not something I was previously on the lookout for - I wasn't actually aware it even existed until I chanced upon the eBay listing. Once again it seemed like a good idea at the time - less than £20 including shipping for a 15-year old boxed 580-piece set seemed like a bit of a bargain - but this proved to be a cruel illusion as this infernal set unwittingly started my slide down an extremely expensive slippery slope which most recently culminated in the purchase of a Mint In Sealed Box Set 8674 Ferrari F1 Racer 1:8. Beware the law of unintended consequences...

My final pick for today is Set 6562 Gas Stop Shop, just another purchase which seemed like a good idea at the time but which in hindsight I'm not sure why I bought. It's not to scale with my work-in-progress City Layout, nor is it a display model in its own right, or indeed a future classic to be revered or cherished in years to come. Even so, none of that prevented me from treating the well-used example I bought at auction like a valuable antique, carefully sorting all the pieces, painstakingly replacing anything that was missing, and lovingly bagging up all the pieces in the far-from-perfect box when I was done. I'll never get that time back, but suspect I'll nevertheless do exactly the same next time anyway...

Nostalgia clearly plays a significant role in my eBrowsing purchases, with many aquisitions having an obvious link to much-loved childhood sets or themes. An inability to resist a bargain is another factor; problem is that however good value a random purchase appears to be, it carries a significant risk of stimulating interest in a previously unknown or unexplored theme which inevitably leads to more purchases and further unplanned assaults on the bank balance. I often seem to rationalise purchases on the basis that if a set proves to be a bit rubbish then I can part it out. This sounds great in theory, but falls down when you consider that when push comes to shove I can't ever seem to bring myself to do it.

So AFOL beware - eBrowsing can seriously damage your wealth... If any of you have examples of similarly random purchases then please share - it'll make me feel (slightly) better to know I'm not alone in this affliction.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Spaced Out

As a huge fan of the LEGO Classic Space sets of the late 1970's, I'm always on the lookout for sets that I don't already have. Boxed examples of Classic Space sets are quite thin on the ground, however, and they invariably sell for significant sums, so securing a reasonably priced one is cause for some celebration. I was therefore delighted to recently pick up a boxed Set 894 Mobile Ground Tracking Station from eBay in pretty good condition and for a good price, and I thought fellow LEGO Space heads might like a closer look...

The box (above - click to enlarge) is a bit worn but structurally intact; the smaller Classic Space sets were cursed with boxes which had to be torn at one end to open them, so unsealed boxes invariably look a bit ragged, but this one is better than many I've seen. The front of the box shows the tracking station parked up and ready for action with its rear doors open, while the rear of the box shows a series of increasingly bizarre alternative builds. The best view of the completed model is surprisingly relegated to the ends of the box, and also the front of the instruction manual (below).

The instructions are of the concertina fold-out variety rather than in booklet format. Despite the absence of part call-outs, the 15 building steps are clear and easy to follow. The back of the instruction manual (below - click to enlarge) is a terrible tease - a delicious diorama of many lovely Classic Space sets which can be an absolute pig to find boxed and in decent condition these days. Strangely, the big daddy of them all, Set 928 Space Cruiser and Moonbase, isn't shown in the photograph, but a number of other beauties such as Set 918 One Man Space Ship and Set 920 Rocket Launch Pad are shown in all their glory.

There aren't too many parts of note in this set, the whole being definitely more than the sum of the parts, but you can see a few exceptions in the picture below. Pride of place goes to the trans-clear round shield in the centre of the photograph which only appears in this set plus its U.S. counterpart, Set 452. Critically, this part is extremely fragile and snaps easily, meaning that many used examples of this set end up being listed for sale with one or both of the shields broken or missing. This can be a problem as they're not cheap to replace; at the time of writing there are only 22 of them listed for sale anywhere in the world on Bricklink, of which only 2 are in the U.K. and these are priced at £10 each. Ouch !

And so to the build. This set may only contain one minifigure, but what a minifigure ! Honestly, I will never tire of the iconic Classic Space minifig, and this set contains one in white. OK, so the gold logo on his chest may have faded since his heyday but I can live with that. Undoubtedly my favourite LEGO minifigure of all time, end of.

At only 76 pieces the vehicle itself takes but a few glorious minutes to assemble and you're done. The iconic combination of old grey bodywork, the printed Classic Space logo, trans-yellow windows and trans-green and trans-red detailing is almost enough to bring a tear to my eye.... All that's missing is a sprinkling of blue parts and you'd have the complete Classic Space package. The rear of the vehicle opens via hinges on each side to reveal the printed console within. Note the pair of fully intact trans-clear shields on the roof, not that I'm gloating or anything !

Released in 1979 this set must only originally have cost a couple pounds at retail but you'll need to be patient and prepared to stump up considerably more now if you'd like a boxed example - at time of writing there isn't a single Set 894 with box available for purchase on Bricklink, and there's only one boxed example of the U.S. version listed which will set you back $100 + shipping. Younger LEGO fans might reasonably wonder what all the fuss is about, but for oldies like me this set is pure gold...