Monday 29 April 2013

Gold Rush

OK, so at the risk of sounding like a broken record, here we go once again....

I've previously moaned here and here about LEGO's increasing tendency to dangle limited edition merchandise, be it ultra-rare Super Heroes minifigures or Star Wars sets, in front of LEGO fans. The practice unfortunately shows no signs of abating, however, and now it's spreading to the Collectible Minifigures.

I'm referring of course to the infamous "Mr. Gold" (below). LEGO have hidden 5,000 of these gold-chromed but otherwise fairly unremarkable minifigures in cases of Series 10 Collectable Minifigures and have thus predictably sparked a frenzy amongst collectors and completists. A couple of early examples turned up in Germany and were duly listed on eBay for 999 each, and others are starting to pop up elsewhere, including the UK and the US.

So why are LEGO doing this ? They must surely be aware that the chances of any of these figures ending up in the hands of children, who us AFOLs are repeatedly reminded are the target demographic, are next to nil. And I'm struggling to believe that the LEGO company actually set out with the intention of lining the pockets of eBay scalpers. Which does beg the question of exactly what they're trying to achieve by doing this. Is the popularity of the Collectible Minifigures starting to wane, necessitating a publicity stunt like this to try and re-invigorate sales, or is it just good, old-fashioned greed and a desire to milk the Collectible Minifigure cash-cow for all its worth ?

I think it's fair to say that reaction to this latest development hasn't exactly been overwhelmingly positive (see for instance here and here to get a flavour of some of the opinions out in cyberspace). It's interesting that some folks have reacted by stating that they won't buy Collectible Minifigures any more as a result - they can realistically no longer guarantee that they'll be able to acquire full sets of figures, and as such there's no point wasting time and money trying to "find 'em all". In fact, it's not inconceivable that I may well end up going the same way - I've quite enjoyed collecting all 9 series of figures so far, not to mention the Great Britain Collectible Minifigures produced for the 2012 Olympic Games, but now that I'm unlikely to be able to complete Series 10 my enthusiasm for keeping it going has evaporated somewhat. So Series 10 might be my last if LEGO goes down the same route for Series 11 and beyond.

Some may argue that rare though the figure may be, we all at least have a chance of finding one. Except maybe not, if allegations of underhand behaviour by some retailers are to be believed. There have been more than a few reports of supposedly new, full boxes of Series 10 Collectible Minifigures having seemingly been rifled through by store staff before making it on to retail shelves; certainly the current resale value of Mr. Gold is hardly a discouragement when it comes to skulduggery perpetrated by the unscrupulous.

In its Mission Statement, LEGO speaks of a desire to foster creativity, but it's hard to escape the conclusion that the only creativity this initiative is likely to foster is the discovery of new and creative ways of surreptitiously searching (and indeed opening) packets of series 10 CMF's in stores in order to try and find Mr. Gold. I suspect that's not what LEGO had in mind when it first came up with this brainwave, but you reap what you sow. For my part I just hope that there's sufficient backlash this time round for LEGO to reconsider its decision and refrain from subjecting us to this chase figure nonsense for Series 11 and beyond.

Thursday 18 April 2013

UCS AT-AT : Raising the Roof

Having struggled through the construction of the AT-AT's left side last time out, I couldn't bear the thought of building the right side quite yet, so I decided to skip it for now and build the roof next instead. The roof will eventually be suspended above the internal skeleton and body of the AT-AT. On the basis of the LDD file, the roof, which is made up of just 346 pieces, looked like it'd be fairly simple to build, and would thus provide some welcome light relief.

You can see a screenshot of the LDD file for the roof above (click to enlarge). Shortly before loading up the LDD file I was delighted to finally figure out how to reactivate the "Outlines on bricks" option on LDD which had mysteriously disappeared after I upgraded to the latest version of the Mac OS a while back. If anyone else has been struggling with this issue, the fix involves going into the 'Preferences' menu in LDD and checking both the "High-quality rendering..." boxes, whereupon the greyed-out "Outlines on bricks" option will be magically available for you to select. Thanks are due to Eurobricks member vynsane for this invaluable tip.

LDD quickly generated the building guide (sample page above - click to enlarge) which consisted of 118 steps. Brick outlines were thankfully also visible on the building guide which made following along significantly easier. That having been said, the sample page above illustrates that LDD hasn't lost its ability to frustrate - a significant irritation during the construction of previous sections has been the software's propensity for generating building guides which bizarrely and totally unnecessarily leave multiple pieces floating in mid air until a later stage of the build, and that tendency is still very much in evidence here.

The roof of the AT-AT consists of 3 sections. The section at the front (picture below - click to enlarge) is the smallest and simplest part of the roof. It's just 2 plates thick, and aside from its mix of tiled and studded sections it has minimal detailing. Construction of this section takes just 15 steps of the building guide to accomplish, so it was done and dusted in a matter of minutes.

The mid-section of the roof (picture below) is the biggest component; while it's again just 2 plates thick over most of its area, it has various elements stuck on the surface or embedded within it; these are purely cosmetic, but add a welcome organic, random feel to a surface that might otherwise have been rather plain. I can't vouch for the accuracy of these details as movie stills which clearly show the top of an AT-AT from above are surprisingly hard to find, but knowing cavegod he'll have done his homework. Certainly the dark grey vent-like structures that you can see in the picture below extending downwards from the front of the mid-section are movie accurate, at least.

The rear-most section of the roof (below) was definitely the trickiest to build and has the most surface detailing. The hinged section at the very back, which consists of a number of 1 x 6 tiles that wrap around the back edge of the roof, is quite fragile and needs to be handled with care. The darker grey greebled section that you can see on the right side of the picture corresponds to the sample page of the building guide that I showed earlier, and it's those greebles that are supposed to be just left suspended in mid-air for a period if the building guide is to be followed religiously. LDD bashing aside, however, the greebling looks excellent and is certainly worth the effort.

You can see the three sections of the roof laid out in the pictures below (click to enlarge). The first picture shows the sections laid out from front to back as you move from the left side of the picture to the right, while the picture below it shows the sections from back to front. The roof sections aren't directly connected to each other; I'm guessing that each section will end up suspended between the upper edges of the left and right sides of the body, held in the correct position relative to the others by gravity alone. We shall see....

As expected, building the roof did indeed turn out to be pretty straightforward, nothwithstanding LDD's absurd sequencing of building steps. With another 346 pieces used up, by my reckoning I'm now almost 5,500 pieces into this massive build, and it's starting to sink in that with barely 700 pieces left to go I'm finally on the home straight. Next up I have the small matter of the right side of the AT-AT to assemble, and then it's crunch time (probably literally as well as metaphorically) as I take my life in my hands and try to put all the completed sections together......

 < -- Building the AT-AT : Part 8                               Building the AT-AT : Part 10 -- >

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Jabba Dabba Doo !

Having regularly perused the LEGO Star Wars forums over at Eurobricks for the past few years now, not to mention keeping an eye on Star Wars-related comments on the Brickset Forum and elsewhere, it became quickly evident that Set 4480 Jabba's Palace was one of those sets which cropped up the most whenever there was a discussion about which Star Wars sets LEGO should remake.

Given this, it's no surprise that many rejoiced when LEGO announced that they would indeed be releasing a new Jabba's Palace set, and true to their word, Set 9516 Jabba's Palace was duly released in the Summer of 2012 to generally favourable reviews. 

Having bagged a copy of the new version, I was all set to dive in, but at the last minute I decided that it might be interesting to revisit the original version first. So here we go....

The original Jabba's Palace was released in 2003 at an RRP of £27.99 / $30.00. At only 231 pieces it's interesting to note that of the 19 different LEGO Star Wars sets released that year it was nevertheless the sixth largest in terms of piece count.

The front of the box (above; click to enlarge) provides a fairly simple overview of the contents of the box against a backdrop of what looks like a movie still of the interior of Jabba's Palace; there's some rudimentary Photo-Shopping in evidence as a blurry Luke Skywalker minifigure falls through the trapdoor of Jabba's throne room into a (non-existent) Rancor pit, and movement is also simulated for some of the other characters. The back of the box below features a number of panels; some of them show off play features of the set, others contain movie stills of the some of the characters which have been immortalised in minifigure form in this set, and there's even an alternate build picture. Finally, two panels highlight some of the other 2003 LEGO Star Wars releases.

The full roster of characters contained in the set is displayed on one of the sides of the box (picture below). I say "characters" rather than "minifigures" as it could be argued that the set only actually contains 3 minifigures in the true sense, with the rest being either larger moulds in the case of Jabba himself or brick-built characters. I won't get into the debate about whether brick-built characters constitute minifigures or not or we'll be here all day.....

Access to the box contents is provided via thumb tabs; it thankfully doesn't look as if they were used by the original owner of my pre-owned example, however, as the box is still in pretty good shape. As an added bonus, it appears that the previous owner included all the bags that the pieces came in - six bags to be precise, of various sizes. 

The front cover of the instruction booklet (below) is well-nigh identical to the front of the box, with only the age rating omitted. It's surprisingly slim, weighing in at only 32 pages cover to cover.

The back cover of the booklet (below - click to enlarge) suggests that Yoda has a penchant for surfing the Net when he's not battling the Sith; more specifically, he's been caught checking out LEGO's Star Wars microsite. The eagle-eyed might have spotted that the picture on the back cover predates the set by a good few years, as much revered Star Wars Set 7191 UCS X-wing Starfighter, released in 1999, is shown as being "NEW !"

The set contains 6 minifigures and characters, and a more varied line-up you'd struggle to find. At the more conventional, even glamorous, end of the spectrum we have Slavegirl Leia (below).  This set predates the appearance of flesh-coloured minifigures in licensed themes, so we're treated to a largely naked yellow torso complete with some subtle shading to indicate cleavage and belly button, plus a gold bikini to keep her decent. Leia's legs are printed, which was relatively unusual back in 2003.

The grey neck bracket you can see in the pictures allows a chain to be attached to the back of Leia's torso. There's no back-printing on the torso, and no alternate expression on the back of the head. This version of Leia is unique to the set.

The Luke Skywalker minifigure (below) is also unique to the set. It features a simple torso print, but there's no back-print on the torso nor printing on the legs or an alternate expression. He does however sport a black fabric cape. A nice touch is the option of either a tan hairpiece or an interchangeable cowl - both are provided.

EV-9D9 is the third minifigure which is unique to this set. According to Wookieepedia, this sadistic supervisor and interrogator droid is actually a 'she' rather than a 'he' - living proof that you learn something new every day, even at my age.

EV-9D9, from Wookieepedia
The LEGO version features a dark red minifigure head with a unique face print mounted on a dark red upturned 1 x 1 tile with clip, but it's otherwise put together pretty much the same way as a standard battle droid, albeit in light grey and dark red rather than tan.

Moving from minifigures on to characters we come to Jabba the Hutt (below - click to enlarge). Jabba is made up of three separate parts - a large body section and two pieces which form his tail. While his sand green body is undoubtedly suitably corpulent, and his face is appropriately repugnant, the lack of printing is nevertheless disappointing. Jabba's arms are moveable at the shoulder, and he has standard minifigure hands, but in contrast to standard minifigures they don't rotate at the wrist. This version of Jabba appears in one other set - Set 6210 Jabba's Sail Barge from 2006.

There are two 'brick-built' characters. The simplest is the humble GNK Power Droid, better known as a Gonk Droid. This version is unique to the set, although there have since been two alternative versions which can be found in Set 10144 Sandcrawler from 2005 and last year's Star Wars Advent Calendar. The body is a dark grey 2 x 2 x 2 container, and the printed door at the front, which opens, is unique in this colour.

Last up we have B'Omarr Monk. Wookieepedia tells us that the B'Omarr were a mysterious religious order based on the planet Tatooine; the B'Omarr monks believed that cutting themselves off from all physical sensation would free them from distraction and thus allow them to achieve enlightenment. Once enlightenment was achieved, the monk would have no further use for their senses or physical body; at this point their brain was surgically removed and transferred into a nutrient-filled jar where it could contemplate life, the universe and everything for the rest of its days. When it was necessary for it to be moved, the brain jar could be transported by a BT-16 perimeter droid (below). So now you know...

B'Omarr Monk, from Wookieepedia
The LEGO rendition consists of 13 parts. The obvious highlight is the 'brain', which is in fact a trans neon orange 1 x 1 round plate inside an upturned crystal ball globe, and the legs are katanas joined to the body by robot arms.

Some of the more interesting and/or unusual parts that you can find in this set are shown in the picture below (click to enlarge). Pride of place probably goes to the trans neon green plain minifigure head which is unique to this set. The old brown stairs only ever appeared in one set apart from this one, and the modified 1 x 2 brick with pin in old brown was included in just 3 sets in total up until the time that the old brown colour was phased out and replaced with reddish brown. The two different types of tan arch and the two sizes of inverted tan dish that you can see in the picture have each graced less than 10 sets to date, and the variant of tan 2 x 2 brick with dome found in this set can only be found in two other sets. Finally, the trans green frog at the top of the picture has appeared in a total of just 6 sets to date including this one.

The build is short and sweet, requiring just 25 pages of the instruction booklet to guide you through. There's no baseplate, the lower level of the Palace (below) comfortably resting on just a few standard plates. There's a nice printed 1 x 2 tile at the entrance which presumably represents the controls to the front gate, and you can just about see a brown 1 x 2 brick with hole on the right side of the photo halfway back; this allows for the attachment of Set 4475 Jabba's Message to expand the Palace. There's similar provision on the other side of the Palace to attach Set 4476 Jabba's Prize, albeit via a 1 x 2 brick with a pin, but you get the general idea.

Once the lower level is complete it takes just a few minutes to complete the build. Structures of note on the upper level include Jabba's raised light grey 'throne', and a trapdoor to cast the unwary into the rancor pit below. Jabba's throne, which features an arch, a transparent neon green bowl to store the transparent green frog I highlighted earlier, and a chain to restrain Leia, slides forwards and backwards a short distance; when the throne is pushed backwards as far as it'll go the trapdoor drops open. Once released, the throne springs back to its starting position thanks to a couple of elastic bands on the sides.

The front of the Palace is hinged, allowing it to be opened up (above) or closed (below). Closing the front of the Palace reveals the black 'iron' gates which provide access to the area under the upper levels. You can also better see the steps on either side which lead to the upper level.

You can see the completed Palace below (click to enlarge) populated with its full complement of minifigures and other characters. Luke is poised to plummet through the trapdoor into the rancor pit below, although luckily for him (although not us) there's no rancor down there....

So what's the verdict ? Well, this 2003 version of Jabba's Palace is distinctly modest in size and scope, even when the two small add-on sets mentioned earlier are factored in to the equation; certainly it's dwarfed by the 2012 remake. The set was surprisingly expensive when released, coming in at well over 10 pence / 10 cents per piece, and I'm sorry to report that it hasn't got any cheaper with time, either. The cheapest complete, boxed example on Bricklink right now will set you back around £85 plus shipping, and if you want a MISB example it'll cost you well over £100. This hefty price appreciation can in large part be explained by the inclusion of all the unique minifigures and characters, and the fact that collectors are willing to pay a premium to own them.

For collectors of the LEGO Star Wars theme this is a must-have set, of course - a no-brainer. Other interested parties would however probably be better off picking up the 2012 remake which has three times as many pieces, builds into a far more identifiable rendition of the subject matter, and comes with more minifigures. There seems to have been a bit of a run on the 2012 version in the wake of some recent controversy, but prior to that the set was available at a decent discount and I've no doubt that it will be once again prior to its eventual retirement.