Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Shuttle Love

It's strange how the human mind works; one minute you're compiling a Bucket List of old sets that you missed while your attention was elsewhere, and the next you have an urge to build a Space Shuttle. OK, so not so strange really - one of the sets I blogged about last week was the classic Technic Space Shuttle set, so it's not such a stretch to see how the desire to dig out an old LEGO Space Shuttle set and build it might have come about....

Set 6544 Shuttle Transcon 2, which contains 342 parts and was released in 1995, is one of a total of ten Space Shuttle sets that LEGO has released over the years. That's a lot of shuttles, and indeed I'm struggling to think of too many other vehicles which LEGO has used as source material on so many occasions. Hell, even the Millennium Falcon has only appeared in 7 sets to date, and one of those was a bag charm....

You can see the box below (click pics to enlarge), a little the worse-for-wear after 16 years but still just about intact. Pleasingly, the box contains a sturdy cardboard inner tray which holds the pieces and helps to maintain the structural integrity of the flimsy outer box.

As well as showing off the inside of the shuttle cargo bay, the back of the box (below) shows a few alternate build ideas, including what appears to be a training simulator and control room.

The instruction booklet is large, clear and easy to follow. There are no part call-outs, but the build is simple enough that the absence of these doesn't really cause problems, and there are no colour discrimination issues.

In time-honoured fashion, the first step is to build the minifigures. The set comes with three of them - two identical mechanics in red caps and an astronaut wearing a lightweight space suit complete with with a lovely shiny gold visor

Once the minifigures have been assembled, it's time to get cracking on the plane, which is completed in just 22 steps. When compared with the likes of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner set and other recently available LEGO aircraft, it doesn't seem all that big. When I think back to the tiny LEGO flyers of my youth such as my much-loved Caravelle, however, I suppose this must in fact have seemed like a pretty substantial aircraft to LEGO builders in 1996. It certainly looks great to me - nice design, nice colour scheme, and critically, it's very swooshable....

Time has not been so kind to the shuttle, which is next in line to be built. As well as the marked discolouration affecting many of the white pieces, which I may replace in due course, the design itself isn't the best IMHO - it's a little too short and stumpy for my liking, although to be fair if the shuttle was much longer then it would be almost the size of the aircraft that carries it.... The cargo bay opens to reveal a small satellite plus an articulated Canadarm to manouevre it into position.

I was struck by how similar some aspects of the build were to that of the currently available Set 3367 Space Shuttle which I wrote about in March of this year. Still, I guess there are only so many ways that you can build a shuttle at this scale. What can't be denied is how much more imposing the newer version is when you put them side by side. Some including myself may grumble about the use of large, custom parts in the latest iteration, but there's little doubt which is the more faithful recreation of the subject matter.

The final part of the build was the small tug, which comes complete with an attachment to drag the aircraft and its massive shuttle payload into position, and then we're done.

The shuttle attaches to the roof of the aircraft below by way of a couple of Technic pins and we're ready to rumble !

One of the reasons I love this set is that it takes me back to my childhood, and specifically to one of the Bond films of my youth - "Moonraker". I can still remember how excited I was watching the scene in the film when one of the Moonraker Space Shuttles owned by Hugo Drax is being given a piggy back by a Boeing 747 and is literally hijacked in mid-air (pic below). Interestingly, the American Airlines-esque red, white and blue stripes on the aircraft from the movie just so happen to be a feature of the aircraft in Set 6544, which surely can't be a coincidence....

It might seem far-fetched to younger readers that Space Shuttles were carted around the country on the back of Jumbo Jets in the 'old days', but that's exactly what happened, and if you need proof then check out the amazing video below from NASA TV:

If you can't see the pop-up above then click here to check out the video on YouTube.

LEGO have therefore grounded this set in reality, and while the aircraft isn't particularly reminiscent of a Boeing 747 apart from the four jet engines, is it for me nevertheless the clear highlight of the set - nicely proportioned to my eyes, and to be honest something that LEGO could easily have got away with releasing as a standalone set, albeit with windows along the length of the fuselage rather than storage compartments.

And now for some good news : unlike some of the retired sets I've featured over the last couple of weeks, this one can be picked up relatively cheaply. I bought mine, which was boxed and complete exactly as you see above, from eBay for the princely sum of £8.25 + postage in May 2009, and while I'll probably need to spend a couple more pounds replacing the discoloured parts, that's still a massive bargain in my book. If you're patient, you may be lucky and find one on eBay for not much more than I paid. Alternatively, you can visit Bricklink and buy one right now; boxed examples start at around £30 over there.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Bucket List Reloaded

OK, as promised, here's the second dip into my bucket list - 5 more sets that came and went while I was in my LEGO Dark Ages and which I made it my mission to track the pictures that follow to enlarge them.

1. Set 7785 Arkham Asylum

What is it about the Batman sets ? These have, almost without exception, literally exploded in price over the past few years, putting them out of reach of all but the most dedicated collectors. A pity, then, that I have an interest in the subject matter and would rather like the full set....

Truth be told, I'm keeping a look out for all but four of the Batman sets, but I think Arkham Asylum is probably the most interesting of those that I don't already own, and hence its inclusion here. As well as an interesting selection of structures which do a pretty good job capturing the quirky and, frankly, spooky feel of the subject material, the set contains 7 minifigs of which 4 are exclusive to the set. And those exclusives include the Poison Ivy minifigure, who I'm almost ashamed to admit I find quite alluring....
And yes - before you say anything, I'm well aware that I need to get out more.

Poison Ivy (thanks to Huw for the pic)
So what's the catch ? Well, if I tell you that the only boxed example of this 860-piece set on at the moment is priced at £599.99 plus postage you'll get a pretty good idea.... This set is rare and ridiculously expensive, so I fear it's going to be languishing on my "to buy" list for a while longer yet....

2. Set 10030 Imperial Star Destroyer

Quite possibly the most predictable inclusion on my list, this absolute monster is surely the pinnacle of bonkers - a one metre long collossus which is virtually impossible to display in anything smaller than an aircraft hangar, costs a fortune and falls apart if you even breathe on it. But just look at it - it's amazing ! Of all the official sets I've ever laid my eyes upon, this one definitely had the most jaw-dropping impact, and as a big Star Wars fan it was clear that I had to get one.

I'm delighted I that took the plunge and bought the bad boy in the picture above when I did as the price of this set has continued to increase. Unless you strike it particularly lucky on eBay, you're looking at paying at least £400 on Bricklink for a complete, boxed example, and even that's assuming you're willing to pay whatever it takes to have it shipped from the US plus import duty on top of that. Otherwise you're stuck with paying £500 plus shipping from mainland Europe. All of which makes the £280 I paid for a MISB example back in 2009 look like an absolute bona fide bargain, although it felt like a small fortune at the time.....

3. Set 6399 Airport Shuttle

This set seems to be on a lot of people's Bucket Lists.... Released in 1990 and containing 767 pieces and 9 minifigures, this set is one of only 3 monorails that LEGO have ever released, and if recent noises coming out of the LEGO company are to be believed, there won't be any more for the foreseeable future.

So why is it so desirable ? Well, aside from the fact that the motorised shuttle itself works just as it should and looks great, there's so much else to the set - you're getting 2 loops of track which form a 2-tiered arrangement, you're getting not one but two stations, one of which is complete with a neat station plaza with stairs leading up to the station platform and shuttle, and you're getting loads of minifigures to bring the models to life. There are also a host of neat little design touches; as an example, one of the stations is designed to imitate the 'T'-shaped Airport Shuttle logo.

Set 6399 Airport Shuttle (pic ©Bricklink)
Beautifully designed, then, but not cheap; at the time of writing, the cheapest boxed example on Bricklink is on sale for well over £200, and if you want a new, sealed set then you're looking at almost £900. So expensive, certainly, but I'm on the lookout for one all the same - I'd just love to add a monorail to my city layout, and this beauty fits the bill perfectly.

4. Set 7194 Yoda

Released in 2002 at a price of £79.99 / $100, this is one of those quirky sets that people seem to either love or hate. I have to confess that Yoda wasn't at the top of my "must buy" list when I started to amass a Star Wars collection on emerging from my Dark Ages, but he gradually got under my skin, and I ended up buying an unopened example for £101 + postage from eBay in mid-2009.

I absolutely loved the 'old style' building experience; the vast majority of the 1075 pieces are 'proper' bricks and plates rather than the profusion of specialised parts you tend to get these days, and many of them are in relatively unusual and interesting colours such as sand green and dark orange. If you're after more information and pics, feel free to check out my photo review of this set hosted on Eurobricks.

I'd be the first to admit that the final result is a little on the blocky side, but LEGO Yoda has a charm all of his own, and tellingly he was a fixture in communal areas of my house for absolutely ages before I finally returned him to his box to free up display space for another set.

Yoda can still be obtained relatively inexpensively given the piece count and rarity, with eBay auctions and buy-it-now listings often going for £100 or less, and the cheapest boxed example on Bricklink currently listed for around £130.

5. Set 8480 Technic Space Shuttle

Given my well-documented ambivalence towards LEGO Technic, this might seem like a surprising choice of set to include in my list, but it's testament to what a great set it is that you're reading this now.

Admittedly the initial hook was my love of all things Space Shuttle and my quest to collect all the LEGO Space Shuttle sets, but once I took the time to research the set it shot to within striking distance of the very top of my "must have" list. In short, it's an amazing set, featuring motors to power the cargo bay doors, Canadarm and satellite, a fibre-optic system to emulate the engine thrusters, and other moving parts such as retractable landing gear and flaps. And it actually looks like the shuttle to boot, with my only gripe being the lack of body and wing panels to 'fill in the gaps'.

Inside of box lid, showing some of the many features of the set
I have to confess that I struggled to get everything working as it should, so complex was the build compared with the average LEGO set, but the finished model is just stunning.

Consisting of 1368 pieces, Set 8480 Space Shuttle was released in 1996. I picked up mine,  used but boxed and complete, for £70 in January 2010. You'll pay between £100 and £150 plus shipping on Bricklink for a boxed example now, and it'll be worth every penny.

Anyway, I hope you've enjoyed this brief snapshot of some of the highlights of my Bucket List over the past couple of weeks; I have to say that it was really hard cutting the list down to just ten sets, and loads of interesting stuff missed the cut, so maybe I'll return to this topic at some point in the future and dust off a few more entries.....

<-- Bucket List sets 1 - 5

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Bucket List

It seems that many AFOLs have taken a leave of absence from LEGO between childhood and adulthood - their so-called Dark Ages - and I'm no exception. On returning to the fray, my delight at rediscovering the joys of LEGO was perhaps slightly tempered by the realisation that a lot of wonderful sets had come and gone while I'd been away. While "wonderful" is clearly a subjective term, and my definition of a wonderful set isn't necessarily the same as yours, it's a sad fact of life that many of the retired sets that I look upon with wonderment and desire seem to be coveted by many other people as well. At least if the cost of getting hold of them now is anything to go by....

So below, in no particular order, are five of the sets on my LEGO bucket list - sets that came and went while I was away and which I made it my business to track down and add to my collection before I expire. Five this week, and another 5 next week, some of which I've now managed to get hold of, and others which still elude me.

1. Set 10019 Rebel Blockade Runner

There are certainly sleeker, more beautiful ships in the Star Wars universe than the Rebel Blockade Runner. And yet, from the first moment I saw pictures of this set I just loved it - a big, beefy, uncompromising brute of a model in the best "take no prisoners" UCS tradition. Unfortunately, it's been out of production for almost 10 years, and a decision to buy it nowadays really cannot be taken lightly. I managed to source a complete, boxed example from eBay in February 2009 for £260. It seemed very expensive at the time, but I suspect I'd have to pay even more now for a boxed one in similar condition. Sure, you can take the easy way out and content yourself with the newer version, Set 10198 Tantive IV, but per my comments in a previous blog post, the newer version is puny in comparison and just doesn't cut the mustard. IMHO, of course....

2. Set 10020 Santa Fe Super Chief

Having been a fan of LEGO trains in my youth, I was astonished to see how far they had evolved when I spied this one for the first time. Even now, when we have a variety of excellent trains currently available at retail, this locomotive still looks beautiful to me, and I can only guess at the wonderment that train fans must have felt when this one first appeared in 2002. You can read more about the set and see more pictures of it here in a previous blog post.

I'm pleased to report that unlike the expensive Rebel Blockade Runner above, this beautiful locomotive isn't (yet) out of reach of the average collector; while it's likely to cost more to secure one now than the £39.99 I paid in June 2009 for a complete, boxed example, you should be able to get one from eBay for between £50 and £100 depending on condition.

3. Set 3450 Statue of Liberty

For some the appeal of this set is the mountain of uber-rare sand green bricks you get with it; for me it's just a love of LEGO sculptures and the interesting subject matter. I've lost count of the number of eBay auctions for this set that I've lost on account of not bidding high enough, and I'm not optimistic of ever finding a boxed example for what I'd consider to be a 'reasonable' amount. Still, we live in hope.....

4. Set 918 One Man Space Ship

Anybody who regularly visits this blog must be sick and tired of reading about how much I love the classic space sets of the late 70's and early 80's - I'm always going on about them. Set 928 Galaxy Explorer was one of my most cherished sets when I was a child, and I still have it to this day. I never owned its baby brother, however - Set 918 One Man Space Ship - and few LEGO purchases on eBay have given me more pleasure than the immaculate boxed example I snagged in January 2009 for a little under £30.  They aren't too hard to find on eBay, although if you're looking for one in good condition with box and instructions you might have to be patient. Alternatively, head over to Bricklink where you can get one with a box for not much more than £50 right now.

5. Set 4558 Metroliner

Released in 1991, the Metroliner has become one of the most coveted of all the LEGO trains, so much so that it was re-released in 2001 under the 'Legends' banner. It's a classic - one of the earliest LEGO trains to actually look reasonably realistic, and with livery highly reminiscent of the Amtrak trains I've seen during trips to the US. In addition to the train itself, the set comes with a 9 volt motor and track to run it on as well as a station platform and 11 minifigures, although strangely no voltage regulator or transformer.

I'm delighted to report that thanks to eBay, my quest for Set 4558 Metroliner finally ended just last week with the arrival of a pristine, boxed example for a little over £100. Now to try and find a club car (below) to go with it......

I'll share 5 more sets from my bucket list next time.  In the meanwhile, I'd be interested to know which sets you missed when you were off doing something else and now just have to find at all costs - feel free to post a comment below.

And if anyone's got a boxed Statue of Liberty going cheap, you know where to come.....


                                                                                          Bucket List sets 6 - 10 -->

Wednesday, 9 November 2011


Most weeks I seem to get an e-mail from someone asking me to sponsor them for charity. This involves a request for money, in exchange for which they usually promise to subject themselves to something markedly unpleasant, such as running, swimming or cycling a really long way, or maybe climbing something high and scary. I do sometimes wonder whether I'm parting with my cash out of a genuine desire to help the particular charity involved, or whether it's actually more out of a sense of relief that it's not me having to run, swim or cycle a really long way. Or maybe climb something high and scary, which would be particularly bad. Strangely, when I do promise to sponsor somebody, I've occasionally felt a twinge of guilt, brought about by the knowledge that my pledge of cash will contribute to the suffering of a friend who will as a result be obliged to run, swim or cycle a really long way. Or maybe climb something high and scary. Yes, I know it's their choice, but as a friend I should be counselling them against such folly, not inducing them to go through with it....

But what if there were a way to give to charity where everybody wins ? Where the charity receives some money. And there's no need for anyone to subject themselves to anything disagreeable like running, swimming or cycling a really long way. Or maybe climbing something high and scary. And there's no guilt. And what if, as an added bonus, you received something tangible and desirable to thank you for your donation ? Impossible ? Nope - I have found such a solution, and his name is Pudsey Bear.

Pudsey Bear, albeit my preferred pre-2011 version....

According to their website, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had its first ever broadcast appeal for children on Christmas Day 1927 which raised over £1000 for four children's charities. Televised appeals commenced in 1955, culminating in the adoption of a telethon format in 1980. This "Children in Need" telethon has continued every year to the present day, raising over £600 million for children's charities in the process. Children in Need adopted Pudsey Bear as its mascot in 1985.

Ah yes, you may ask, but what has this got to do with LEGO ? Well, if you hadn't already realised, we have been blessed with a LEGO version of Pudsey Bear in honour of Children in Need 2011.

Creator Set 30029 Pudsey Bear costs £4, of which at least £1 goes to the Children in Need appeal. Pudsey comes packed in a polybag, and I'm not sure if it's just me, but the bag feels different from usual - it seems to be made from softer plastic. Opening the bag reveals a set of tightly folded instructions, 2 smaller bags containing parts, and a plasticised rectangular sheet from which you detach Pudsey's bandage (picture below - click to enlarge).

The instructions (one side of which are shown below) are quite a feat of origami, emerging from the bag as a teeny 6 cm x 5 cm rectangle and then folding out into a surprisingly large, double-sided sheet which is actually considerably taller than an A4 sheet of paper.

Open the bags, and 15 building steps and a few minutes later you have your very own LEGO Pudsey Bear.

Pudsey's no one-trick pony, however - he can move his arms, legs and even his ears, as you can see below....

I've read some pretty unflattering comments about LEGO Pudsey since his release. Some people have even described him as "ugly". For shame ! OK, so he's hardly a faithful reproduction of the source material, but he's still quite cute, especially with his bandage removed. And if you really don't like him, just look at him as a nice little yellow parts pack and buy him anyway....

Overall, £4 for Pudsey seems very reasonable to me in comparison to the likes of 40020 Halloween Set which has almost a third fewer pieces for the same price. And he's for charity, which is another good reason to buy him. UK folks can buy him online here, or in person at a LEGO brand store, or at some ASDA supermarkets. Folks in the US and elsewhere will however have to badger their UK contacts to get them one as I don't think the set will be available outside the UK.

Please click here to donate to Children in Need; this year's Children in Need telethon is on November 18th, so mark your calendars....

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Girl's Stuff

It's pretty common knowledge I think that the LEGO company wants to be more popular with the fairer sex. LEGO is generally seen as a boy's toy, and in line with any sensible company, the LEGO company want to broaden the appeal of their product. Quite right too.

LEGO - just for boys ?
I've always found the concept of LEGO being a boy's toy a little hard to get my head around, to be honest. When I was a kid I often played LEGO with my friends, and some of those friends were girls. I certainly don't remember them enjoying it any less than me. Hell, some of them even had more LEGO than I did. Surely there isn't anything inherently off-putting to girls about building with LEGO ? Nonetheless, the statistics do suggest that the typical LEGO user is male.

LEGO have tried to woo the female market, of course. This has been via gimmicky niche products such as Clikits "fashion items" and jewelry, and also by way of "girl-friendly" sets. Without wishing to denigrate their set-related efforts, this has at times seemingly consisted of just putting some pink pieces in the box. OK, so that's not quite fair - while sets in the Paradisa theme (produced between 1992 and 1997) did contain more than their fair share of pink pieces, not to mention a few other rather nice pastel colours, the play experiences promoted by the sets were markedly less macho and aggressive than the usual Police and Fire scenarios that we're used to, as exemplified by sets such as Sidewalk Cafe, Poolside ParadiseCabana Beach and Show Jumping Event. In other ways the sets were much like any other set, not least the fact that they included standard minifigures. I've no hard data on how well these sets sold, only that (a) they're pretty neat IMHO and I wish I had some of them, and (b) they're relatively pricy on eBay which suggests to me that maybe they didn't sell in huge numbers.

Paradisa Poolside Paradise
Overlapping with the availability of the Paradisa theme, and indeed continuing to the present day, is the Belville theme. In truth, Belville largely follows the Paradisa formula - a preponderance of pink (albeit a darker shade) in the packaging and pieces, non-aggressive scenarios such as The Royal StableRoyal Summer Palace, Belville Luxury Cruiser and Cat Show (!), and the inclusion of figures. Interestingly, however, unlike Paradisa the figures deviate from standard minifig scale; they're significantly larger and more realistic, with an almost doll-like appearance. I must admit I was shocked by how long the Belville theme has been going for and how many sets there have been in the theme; according to Brickset, the first Belville set appeared in 1994, and there have been at least 82 sets since. There have however not been any new Belville releases since 2008, and while the four 2008 sets are still currently available at retail, I suspect they won't be for much longer.
Set 7587 Horse Jumping - welcome to Belville !
Rumours have been rife for some time now that LEGO are planning a new assault on the female market, and recently the cat was let out of the bag with the release of a host of 2012 set images. A number of these images were evidently of the new girls theme which, it appears, will be called "Friends". A selection can be seen below - click to enlarge the images for a closer look at what's to come.

So what to make of these upcoming sets ? Well, on the basis of the images at least, there are few major surprises, unless you class the preponderance of pastel purple rather than pink or magenta on the packaging as a major surprise.... Pink and magenta pieces ? Check. Non-threatening leisure and/or animal-themed scenarios ? Check. Inclusion of figures ? Check. While it's clearly premature to draw any firm conclusions, there doesn't seem to be anything markedly different about "Friends" in comparison with the Belville theme which it succeeds. This is the case right down to the figures included in the sets, which to my dismay, follow the Belville formula of being significantly larger than minifig scale.

Which leads me on to today's gripe : why oh why oh why are LEGO including these large, non-standard figures in the "Friends" sets rather than the much-loved and ubiquitous standard minifigures ? I can only assume that the company have conducted focus groups among girls of a certain age and got feedback that these girls prefer the large figures. Thing is, I fear that virtually nobody other than these girls of a certain age will buy the "Friends" sets now that LEGO have decided not to include standard minifigures. I certainly won't. Nor will anyone else I've spoken with about it. Would I have bought them if the "Friends" sets were System scale and included standard minifigures ? Hell yes I would, and so would the people I've spoken with about it. After all - who in their right mind wouldn't want Stephanie's Cool Convertible in purple and turquoise, for instance, if it came with a standard minifigure....?! Minifigures are currently a massive customer-magnet, so it just seems absurd not to design the new sets around them. Sure - I get it that I'm not the target demographic on this occasion, but that's no reason to actively drive me and millions of others away....

Stephanie's Cool Convertible - nice car, shame about the figure....

Thinking about this a little more, I wondered whether aside from all the focus groups there's also a view that minifigures are too small and fiddly for little hands ? Well, anybody watching a 3 or 4-year old utterly engrossed in role playing with standard minifigures inside a modular building would have to revise that view pretty quickly I think - it's almost impossible to pull them away....

So let's just hope for LEGO's sake that there are indeed huge numbers of girls of a certain age who are as I write preparing to flock to the stores in 2012 to buy "Friends" sets and who can make up for all the other people who now won't buy these sets because of the figures. Otherwise this could be a massive wasted opportunity....