Tuesday 17 June 2014

One Man Show

With the massive success of this year's LEGO Movie and the subsequent release of Set 70816 Benny's Spaceship, Spaceship, SPACESHIP! I think it's fair to say that there's been something of a Classic Space revival; anyone wondering what I mean by Classic Space might want to check out this posting before continuing. In the most basic sense, Classic Space is a collection of space-themed sets released by LEGO in the late 1970's and early to mid-1980's; it has however grown to become much more than just a collection of sets, coming to represent a distinctive building style and colour scheme, and sparking the Neo Classic Space revivalist movement. Neo Classic Space has its own building rules and advocates, none more so that Peter "Legoloverman" Reid whose re-imagining of the daddy of all Classic Space sets you can see below.

Classic Space never went away for some of us, then, but for many it's taken the events of this year to remind them of its delights, or indeed to introduce it for the first time. In honour of this I thought I'd take a walk along memory lane and review another of the old Classic Space, um, classics - Set 918 One Man Space Ship, referred to by some sources as Set 918 Space Transport.

At just 23 cm wide by 14 cm tall by 4 cm deep the box is ultra slim and extremely compact. I assume that when new the set was shrink-wrapped in cellophane; alas my copy of the set was pre-owned when I bought it so I can't say for sure. The outer box is actually a slipcase, the front of which you can see above; this slides off to reveal an inner box which holds the pieces. The front of the slipcase carries a less than pin-sharp image of the set contents superimposed on a blurry starfield with a nearby planet top left and a barren lunar-like surface below. In addition to that we get the LEGO logo, the set number, and that's it; the 6+ age recommendation is relegated to one of the sides of the box and the set name is nowhere to be found. The rear of the slipcase (below) features photographs of a bunch of alternate builds which can be assembled using elements contained within the set. As stated in previous reviews I wish LEGO would provide such inspiration to today's builders, but the current fashion is to highlight play-features of the modern day sets on the back of the box instead.

Removal of the slipcase reveals the appropriately decorated inner box (below) which features double-walled sides and is adorned with a star-field pattern reminiscent of the front of the slipcase. Unfortunately the double walls reduce the space available for the pieces, so that when they're bagged up it's hard to slide the slipcase over them.

The cover of the instruction booklet, which looks pretty much the same as the front of the slipcase, can be seen below; I say 'booklet' but it's actually a single sheet measuring around 27 cm x 54 cm which is folded up into an approx. 13.5 cm x 13.5 cm square for storage. Unfolding the sheet reveals the clear and easy-to-follow building instructions which break the build into just 12 steps.

The building instructions take up almost all of the available space, with the two remaining panels being taken up by the cover art (above) and a diorama (below - click to enlarge) featuring a clutch of Classic Space sets. The same diorama picture also appears in the instruction leaflet for Set 894 Mobile Ground Tracking Station.

You can see selection of rare and/or interesting elements which can be found in the set in the picture below (click to enlarge). The blue 1 x 4 brick with the printed LL918 pattern is unique to this set, as is the light grey 1 x 4 brick with printed Homemaker stove switch pattern. The trans yellow 4 x 6 plate only appears in this and one other set, while the blue 33 degree 3 x 6 slope printed with the Classic Space logo and the light grey left and right 1 x 3 x 1 doors appear in a total of 5 sets. The trans yellow 33 degree 3 x 6 slope is a Classic Space staple and appears in a total of 9 sets. The other elements in the picture - the light grey stand, tail and 1 x 1 modified brick with positioning rockets, and the blue 2 x 2 - 2 x 2 bracket - are more commonly available, having initially appeared in the Classic Space sets and then subsequently been used in other themes.

It's hard to convey the excitement that I and other young LEGO fans felt back in the day when we were confronted with the Classic Space part and colour palette, some of which you can see above. To put things into context, up until the appearance of the Classic Space sets, the LEGO building experience had largely consisted of the use of basic elements in red, yellow, blue, white and black plus a smattering of trans clear elements, some light grey and green baseplates, and a few green trees. Then I opened my first Classic Space set and my senses were assaulted by trans yellow bricks, plates and slopes, small trans green and trans red plates and round bricks, light grey wedge plates, cones, positioning rockets, aircraft tails, stands and other exotica, and minifigures wearing space suits and carrying air tanks and radios. OK, so maybe if you weren't there you'll be scratching your head right now wondering what all the fuss was about, but trust me - at the time it felt like my LEGO world had been turned upside down, and for the better.

The set contains just one minifigure, but what a minifigure ! This red incarnation of probably LEGO's best-loved minifigure design of all time might look simple by today's standards but he's no less beautiful for that. Mine has managed to avoid one of the common Classic Space minifigure pitfalls, that of the cracked helmet strap lovingly parodied by Benny in the LEGO Movie, but as you can see in the picture above he's unfortunately fallen victim to the other - fading of his torso print; you can see what his torso print would have originally looked like here. His head has the standard grin pattern and isn't backprinted. You can get a good look at his airtanks in the picture below; this part first appeared as part of the Classic Space sets, and the same design is still in use to this day. This red version of the Classic Spaceman appeared in a total of almost 50 sets all told between 1978 and 1986.

The build is predictably simple - literally a matter of just a few minutes - and you can see the finished model below (click to enlarge). It seems incredible that a set as small and quickly-assembled as this could be considered so ground-breaking, but you need to remember that pre-1978, LEGO models utilised basic bricks, slopes and plates; the appearance in 1978 of wedge plates and other more specialised elements, plus the expanded colour palette, revolutionised design possibilities and gave us LEGO spaceships which at the time seemed impossibly sleek and desirable. Many of the new elements are immediately evident - the blue 33 3 x 6 slope with the iconic Classic Space logo, the trans yellow windscreen and 4 x 6 plate which forms the cockpit roof, and the light grey wedge plates, positioning rockets and tail to name just a few.

From behind you can see the large light grey cone, another of the new elements ushered in by the Classic Space revolution, and it's attached to the rear of the ship by the blue 2 x 2 - 2 x 2 bracket. The rear of the ship tapers neatly thanks to the use of more wedge plates.

As you can see from the picture below, there's more than enough space inside the cockpit for our Classic Spaceman; he sits behind a steering wheel and the light grey 1 x 4 brick with printed Homemaker stove pattern mentioned earlier which is used a a control panel. The trans yellow cockpit roof is attached via a pair of hinges on the right of the cockpit and it opens to provide cockpit access. The only other moving parts are the pair of light grey 1 x 3 x 1 doors on either side towards the rear of the craft.

In summary, Set 918 One Man Space Ship was released in 1979 and contains 81 parts; it appears to have only been released in Europe, Australia and Canada. It was one of a small, select group of much-loved and groundbreaking sets which were literally the start of an era, and whose appeal has IMHO deservedly endured to the present day. Old it may be, but I think this set has retained its charm in spades - great to look at, and also eminently swooshable. The enduring popularity of Classic Space sets in general is reflected in the aftermarket prices. At time of writing there are only 10 examples of this set listed for sale on Bricklink of which only 2 are boxed; the only used boxed example will set you back over £100 plus shipping, and if you want a mint, sealed copy then prepare to shell out almost £1,000 / US$1,500 for the privilege.... The set does periodically come up on eBay - that's where I got my copy a few years back - so keep your eyes peeled and you may get lucky.

For more Classic Space goodness you might want to check out my review of Set 894 Mobile Ground Tracking Station or read some of my related ramblings here and here. Further Classic Space reviews to come in due course - it's always a pleasure to look back at these sets !

Thursday 5 June 2014

Family Values

So there I was, having a relaxing sit down and a nice cup of tea after my epic two-part Sea Cow review. The pressure was off - two whole weeks to figure out what to write about next, to do any building and photography that needs to be done, and to formulate, format and publish the next Gimme LEGO posting. Deep breath in, exhale, and chill out.... Then in walks my other half and my youngster fresh from a last-minute trip to LEGOLAND Windsor, and they've bought me a present ! Surely not a LEGO set, though - I've got pretty much all of those already. Except, wait a minute - not this one.....

Set 40115 LEGOLAND Entrance with Family is apparently a LEGOLAND exclusive and only available from LEGOLAND parks. While I was aware of its existence before it arrived in my house, I had yet to see any reviews of the set on the sites that I frequent. I therefore decided to dive straight in and check it out for myself.

The box is fairly compact, with a footprint of 26 cm x 14 cm. It's surprisingly deep and heavy for such a small set, however, and unusually for a box of this size it's secured with tape seals rather than providing the option of thumb tabs. The box art is about as simple as it gets, with an image of the completed build posed against a simple backdrop dominating the front of the box (above); a small inset image to the bottom left of the main image offers a clue to the most intriguing aspect of the set, however, and when you flip the box over this feature is revealed (below - click to enlarge). The set contains the necessary elements to build both a light-skinned and a dark-skinned family, albeit not at the same time. I've never seen a LEGO set offer this particular customization option before, and I'd be fascinated to know if this is a LEGO first.

Cutting the tape seals reveals four un-numbered bags of elements, two slim instruction booklets, a cardboard backdrop, and an 8 x 16 light bley plate loose in the box. There's no DSS.  You can see the backdrop below; the foreground is printed with a fairly crude and generic representation of the entrance to the LEGOLAND parks, with a silhouette of the park attractions in the background. The backdrop is perforated close to its lower edge by a couple of slots which will be used to attach it to the finished model.

As reflected by their front covers (pictures below), one booklet contains instructions to build the dark-skinned family, and the other to build the light-skinned family. Both booklets are around 40 pages in length, with one being a couple of pages longer than the other by virtue of the inclusion of a 2-page inventory of parts at the end. Unusually, apart from the LEGOLAND references there's absolutely no advertising in either booklet.

You can see a selection of some the more uncommon elements contained within the set below. There aren't any elements unique to the set, although the dark tan 2 x 2 tile printed with the gold star has only previously featured in one other set, the Palace Cinema. Other elements such as the tan modified 1 x 1 plate with vertical clip and the left and right dark green 6 x 3 wedge plates can only be found in two other sets, and this is only the fourth appearance of the ovoid shield with lion head motif. All other elements in the picture have appeared in ten sets or less.

The build itself is predictably fairly simple. You start out by assembling a stand using green and light bley plates; this is then decorated with dark green wedge plates, some dark bley 2 x 2 round tiles and 1 x 1 round plates, and a few bright light orange and dark pink flowers. Then it's time to start work on the Miniland-style figures themselves.  There's liberal use of plates modified with clips, closed handles and hinges to allow some arm movement, and clips and clip lights are pressed into service as hands so that the figures can hold a variety of accessories including a sword, a shield, a wand, a brick-built camera and a bunch of flowers. Mum has a 2 x 2 turntable at waist level so is able to rotate the upper part of her body; all the figures have a 1 x 1 round plate for a neck, so head rotation is simply a case of twisting the head to the desired position. Baby's curls are formed from modified 1 x 1 plates with clip light, while dad has for some reason got the dark tan printed 2 x 2 tile stuck on his chest, presumably to represent a naff sweater....

The picture below shows how the backdrop is attached to the base. Dark green 1 x 3 tiles pass through the two slots at the bottom of the backdrop and attach to structures behind and in front. This securely anchors the backdrop to the base, although it does have a tendency to lean forwards or backwards a little.

As previously discussed, the set contains parts and instructions for an alternate build which you can see below (click to enlarge). Here, all the tan elements in the figures which represent exposed skin are substituted by reddish brown elements, with the exception of the elements making up the hands which are replaced by their black equivalents. This is understandable in the case of the 1 x 1 plate with clip light which doesn't exist in reddish brown, but less so for the 1 x 1 plate with vertical clip which appears in reddish brown in one of the currently-available Minecraft sets. Additionally, mum and baby get black hair.

Set 40115 LEGOLAND Entrance with Family is available now from LEGOLAND Windsor and other LEGOLAND parks. It contains 270 pieces and costs £12.99. As a fan of 'old school' builds I found the model to be quite charming, although the crude, simplistic nature of the Miniland-style figures won't be to everybody's taste, and some will no doubt complain about the lack of minifigures.... At £12.99 for 270 parts it's decent value for money, and it isn't often that you can say that about any aspect of the theme park experience.

Next time on Gimme LEGO : we're overdue a dig through the archives and another dose of Classic Space I reckon.... ;-)

Monday 2 June 2014

Sea Cow review - the finale !

Last time on Gimme LEGO I kicked off my review of Set 70810 MetalBeard's Sea Cow with a close look at the packaging, minifigures and accessory models; if you missed it then you can get caught up here.

After all the time spent assembling and photographing minifigs and other accoutrements it was nice to get to work on the Sea Cow itself. I commented last time on the generous selection of unusual elements to be found in the Queasy Kitty (above) and MetalBeard brick-built characters, and if that was liable to quicken the pulse of afficionados of uncommon and/or interesting elements then the Sea Cow's parts palette will surely send them into paroxyms of ecstasy.... You can see a selection of the less common elements utilised in the construction of the Sea Cow in the picture below (click to enlarge); all of these elements have graced 10 sets or less to date, a good number of them have only previously appeared in one or two sets, and a couple of them are unique to the Sea Cow. There's loads of dark brown to go with the more common reddish brown, plus a liberal sprinkling of pearl gold, flat silver and dark red.

The first stage of the Sea Cow build (pictures below - click to enlarge) is a relatively lengthy affair involving the construction of the hull and lower deck. Regrettably, much of the hull is made up of large, dark brown prefabricated elements (they're the first three elements you can see in the picture above) bolted together with Technic pins to make one serious lump of plastic. My aversion to POOP has been well documented here and here, and building the hull out of these prefab monstrosities did nothing to challenge my prejudices. I accept that use of regular elements to construct the hull would have increased the part count and price somewhat, but on an AFOL-oriented set like this I think it would have been the right thing to do. Anyway, I digress.... Once the hull has been laid down, the lower deck is populated with six pearl dark grey cannons; these protrude from the lower part of the hull and are mounted on cannon bases which afford them a limited range of up/down movement. The Sea Cow has two large anchors which are attached by chains to a capstan; the black Technic axle you can see sticking upwards in the pictures below inserts into the capstan and you can raise and lower the anchors by rotating the axle; a deck-top structure will eventually cover up the bare axle, greatly improving the appearance but preserving the functionality. Another notable aspect of this stage of the build is the construction of the large rear propeller and the prominent and rather over-the-top rudder.

The single bag of elements numbered with a '4' is all that's required for the next stage of construction. This involves building up the sides of the hull and decorating the exterior with a bling-tastic selection of pearl gold and flat silver elements including 16 flat silver Technic pin connectors which I assume are supposed to represent mini-cannons of some sort. Both sides of the ship feature prominent semi-circular cut-aways, and we'll see how these are filled later on. Progress is rapid and straightforward, and you can see the results below (click pictures to enlarge).

Construction of the ship's prow (the foremost part of the bow above the waterline) and stern plus the fore and aft decks comes next and requires the contents of the two bags marked with a '5'. The prow and stern are elegantly constructed, consisting of rows of reddish brown curved 4 x 1 slopes arranged side by side on 6 x 6 plates which are themselves held in position sideways so that the slopes face outwards and produce a pleasing curved contour as you can see in the pictures below. The decks are made up of a patchwork of reddish brown and black plates; once they've been dropped into place a 16L axle pierces the foredeck; this will form the core of the foremast. Finally, 8 trans dark blue boat studs are strategically attached to the underside of the hull; these serve to reinforce the joins between different parts of the hull and rudder and also presumably reduce friction in case anyone decides to slide the model around on the floor.

There are two bags marked with a '6', and the parts within are used to build the first level of the towering structure at the back of the vessel (pictures below - click to enlarge). This has walls which are angled via the use of hinge plates and which incorporate large windows; the lower part of the windows feature a cross-hatched leaded effect which is achieved with the use of stickers which attach to the window panes. Accurate placement of these stickers is important - if you make a mistake and have to remove and reapply one or more stickers then the affected window or windows take on a cloudy appearance, so handle with care.... Detailing above the arched entrance is provided by the unorthodox use of a pair of reddish brown whips, while at the back there are a host of interesting details including a couple of propellers, ornate multi-level lamps and even a pair of wings....

There's further detailing inside this section - as you can see from the official LEGO close-up below, the main interior feature appears to be some sort of steam regulation device, complete with a valve, pearl gold taps and some pearl gold spyglasses which pass for pipes. The 'steam room' also contains a chandelier hanging from the ceiling and a barrel containing swords and muskets

Picture (c) 2014 LEGO Group

The contents of the three generously-stuffed bags marked with a '7', plus a huge 20 stud high one-piece boat mast from the unmarked bag, are needed for the next stage of the build. This involves construction of the captain's cabin on top of the 'steam room', and an upper deck on top of that. The exterior is very ornate, once again featuring an abundance of pearl gold detailing, lattice windows and numerous neat little touches.

We get another propeller at the rear, the designers presumably deciding that the three other rear propellers already in place weren't enough, and the name of the vessel is spelled out by a couple of stickers attached to curved 4 x 1 slopes beneath the propeller. I hate STAMPS so it's nice that "SEA" and COW" stickers are individually attached one to each 4 x 1 slope rather than a single sticker spanning both. The ship's wheel sits on the roof of the captain's cabin, behind which is what looks suspiciously like a large dark red armchair; this presumably enables MetalBeard to steer his ship in comfort.... Behind the armchair is a small, semi-circular rear observation deck (known as a poop deck, I believe) from which the rear mast rises. Sails are provided in the form of curved white Technic panels; when I first saw publicity shots of the model I was dubious of LEGO's decision to use these rather than the cloth sails of old, and I still think that cloth sails would have looked better BUT I have to admit that the Technic panels work better than I'd expected; they furthermore have the advantage over cloth sails of being less fiddly to install, more robust and hard-wearing, and a lot cheaper to replace in the unlikely event that you'd ever need to do so.

The interior of the captain's cabin is a joy to behold - it's literally packed with features and details such as a globe, sextant, paintings, charts, blueprints of the ship, a ship in a bottle and a treasure chest to name just a few. The charts, blueprints and paintings consist of stickers applied to tiles of various sizes and colours. The shame of it is that all this incredible detail is basically hidden from view once you've completed this section of the build; even so, you'll know it's there, and it'll hopefully give you a warm fuzzy feeling knowing how much care and attention the designers have lavished on the model. You can hopefully get a flavour of the level of detail from the promo shot below.

Picture (c) 2014 LEGO Group

I'm starting to feel like I'm on the home straight as I pour out the contents of the two bags marked with an '8', grab a few more large elements from the unmarked bag, and start work on the forecastle, foremast and bowsprit (guess who had to take a crash course in galleon anatomy to write this review...?). One of the first tasks is to build what looks like a boiler on the foredeck; the boiler is basically a cylinder made up of a stack of light bley 2 x 2 round bricks with grille flanked by a couple of valves. The boiler slides down onto the shorter of the two axles sticking up from the foredeck which as previously described is attached to the ship's capstan; in this way the anchors can be raised and lowered by rotating the boiler. Construction of the foremast comes next, complete with a substantial gun emplacement halfway up and eight sails once again made up of white Technic panels of various sizes.

The bowsprit is the substantial spar projecting forward from the ship's prow. As well as accommodating three more sails, it's noteworthy for the presence of a winged cow complete with pearl gold horns (below - click to enlarge) - every galleon needs a figurehead, after all, even if it's not usually bovine....

The last stage of the build involves construction of the main mast plus the ship's funnel and the prominent twin turbines that fit into the semi-circular cut-aways on both sides of the vessel. This requires the contents of the two bags marked with a '9' and the remaining elements in the unmarked bag. As you can see from the pictures below the main mast is absolutely enormous and the designers deserve considerable credit for ensuring that the whole thing doesn't come crashing down at the slightest provocation; the weight of the 16 sails alone made me wonder whether it would be horribly unstable, but it's deceptively robust and the mast complete with the section of deck and fittings can be carried around surpringly easily without breaking.

Once again there are a host of neat little details, some of which are hidden from sight in the finished model; these include a couple of secret compartments beneath the main mast containing a rat, a skull, a golden goblet and some gems. The funnel (below), while obviously dwarfed by the main mast, is also quite sizeable and sits atop a small furnace.

The section of deck complete with main mast, funnel and twin turbines slots into the mid-section of the vessel as you can see below, and the model is finished. I think the completed model looks majestic - enormous, wonderfully imaginative, packed with interesting details and features and impossible to ignore.

You can see the finished Sea Cow model plus all the minifigures, brick-built characters and other bits and pieces in the picture below (click to enlarge). It's hard to truly convey the sheer size of the finished ship, but hopefully the picture will at least go some way towards providing a sense of scale, showing as it does how the minifigures are completely dwarfed by the enormity of the ship.

The Sea Cow is a remarkable and spectacular model which has completely wowed me. I'm a fan of the Steampunk aesthetic which certainly helps, but I'd still defy anyone not to be impressed with the finished build. First and foremost it's huge - much bigger than I expected. Then there's the attention to detail both inside and out which frequently rivals that lavished on LEGO's revered modular buildings. One of the things I like most about the model is how quirky it looks; its higgeldy-piggledy appearance brings to mind a maritime version of The Burrow from the Harry Potter movies, and the designers appear have been given free reign to literally run riot, resulting in one of the most unusual, creative and over-the-top official models I've ever built. The icing on the cake is the relative lack of hype and expectation that preceded its release; similar to 2012's wonderful Haunted House this set almost seemed to come out of nowhere, and I therefore didn't approach it with unrealistically lofty expectations. Bottom line : the Sea Cow is stunning - my set of the year so far.

Set 70810 MetalBeard's Sea Cow contains 2741 pieces and retails for £169.99 / US$249.99 which is I think is pretty reasonable considering the part count. The set is a LEGO Exclusive which means it'll be a challenge to get hold of it at a decent discount, but despite that I still wholeheartedly recommend it - if you find another official set this year even half as much fun to build and as impressive to behold then I'll be surprised.... Hats off to LEGO, then - I think it was very brave of them to give the go-ahead to a niche set of this size and ambition, and I just hope it sells enough copies to ensure that they don't regret their decision....