Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Rocky Horror ?

A while back I posted a bucket list in two parts (here and here) made up of some absolutely cracking sets which came and went while I was languishing in my LEGO Dark Ages and which I'd made it my business to track down on returning to the LEGO fold. I limited myself to 10 sets for the purposes of those posts, but truth be told there were a whole lot more sets that missed the cut but which I've also been determined to pick up at some point. Having managed to track one of them down a little while back on eBay for a good price, I thought I'd share my good fortune with you all by posting my thoughts on the set plus a few pictures.

Set 6552 Rocky River Retreat was released in 1993 and contains 241 pieces. You can see the front of the box below; my copy isn't exactly pristine, but it's reasonably well preserved given that it's 20 years old. The front of the box features the completed set superimposed on a suitably wild and mountainous backdrop. Some rudimentary efforts have even been made to match the pattern on the baseplate, specifically the river, with the backdrop. Unlike today's sets there's no suggested age range printed on the front of the box.

The back of the box (below; click to enlarge) showcases some possible alternate builds. None of the suggestions are exactly earth-shattering, but thinking back to my childhood and remembering how I used to endlessly scrutinise every detail of the alternate builds, it's a great way of getting the creative juices flowing and something I miss from most modern sets.

When new, the box was evidently secured with tape seals; cutting the seals enabled the end flaps to be neatly lifted without damaging the box, and providing access to the contents which were packaged within a white, cardboard tray. My copy of the set thankfully still has the original cardboard tray, without which I think the box would probably deteriorate pretty quickly as it's not very robust.

The front cover of the instruction booklet can be seen above; it's pretty much identical to the front of the box. The back cover (below) features a larger view of a couple of the alternate build ideas shown on the back of the box.

The instruction booklet is close to A4-sized, and at only 16 pages from cover to cover it's refreshingly concise when compared with some of the bloated efforts we have to contend with these days. One reason for the brevity is an almost total absence of any advertising, be it of other sets, the LEGO club, surveys or whatever. Just about the only nod to promotional activity is the triangular panel which occupies the top left hand corner of the back cover of the instruction booklet above, although what those 200 points would have counted towards I have absolutely no idea - answers on a postcard.... The building guide occupies all but the front and back covers of the booklet, and you can see the final step of the building guide below (click to enlarge).

It's at this point during a set review that I'd generally start to highlight a few of the rare or interesting parts which can be found in the set. There are certainly a few elements worth mentioning - the light grey 6 x 8 slopes with slate roof pattern and the brown rope bridge for starters - but truth be told they all pale into insignificance in the face of the quite wonderful baseplate (below) which is unique to this set. LEGO seem to be increasingly moving away from including baseplates in sets at all, let alone patterned beauties like this one; while in many respects set design has come on leaps and bounds over the past couple of decades, I do mourn the demise of the likes of Green Baseplate 32 x 32 Island with River Pattern and its ilk.

The set contains two minifigures and an old-style horse which comes complete with a red saddle. The unnamed female minifigure is descriptively but not exactly snappily titled Jogging Suit, Light Gray Legs, Light Gray Cowboy Hat, Backpack by the folks over at Bricklink, or par046 for short. Although none of her constituent parts (head, torso etc.) are unique to this minifigure, the specific combination of elements comes together to create a minifigure which doesn't appear in any other sets. If you're thinking that she has an unusually long neck then you'd be right - her backpack hangs around the peg on the top of her torso, and this prevents her head from sliding down on to the peg to the full extent. I do have to briefly mention her torso; when I bought this set from eBay and checked through it to make sure that all the parts were present and correct, I was dismayed to discover that I'd been sent the wrong torso for this minifigure. More in hope that expectation I checked my (modest) collection of loose LEGO and to my astonishment discovered that the only loose blue torso I owned just so happened to be the correct torso for this minifigure.... Strange but true.

The unnamed male, Jacket Green with 2 Large Pockets - Blue Legs, Red Cap, or just pck001 for short, can be seen below. While he's made up of some pretty commonplace parts, similar to his female counterpart above this specific combination of head, torso, legs and cap comes together to make a minifigure that isn't very common at all, only appearing in one set in addition to this one. I do love his stubbly face, complete with blue-tinted sunglasses. Although he wisely leaves most of the heavy lifting to his companion in the form of her sizeable backpack, he does at least come equipped with a small brown suitcase......

Once the minifigures have been assembled it's time to do some real building. First up are the trunks of the trees which are made up of brown modified 1 x 1 x 2 bricks with shutter holders; the shutter holders themselves lend a pleasing, knobbly appearance to the tree trunks, a simple but surprisingly effective technique that I've not seen used before. While these modified 1 x 1 x 2 bricks aren't exactly common, either in brown (a colour which has now been retired) or in reddish-brown (the modern equivalent of brown), they aren't really uber-expensive to buy on Bricklink either. Don't therefore be too surprised to see a few trees 'borrowing' this technique in my City Layout, assuming I ever get around to completing and landscaping it. I probably won't be copying the foliage, though, which merely consists of small prefab pine trees plonked on top of the tree trucks and looks distinctly odd....

The yellow 4x4 (below - click pics to enlarge) is classic 4-stud wide fare, in contrast to the 6-stud wide vehicles we're generally served up nowadays. The wheels look a little oversized, but it's otherwise a nice looking, fully loaded little vehicle featuring opening driver-side and passenger-side doors, a sunroof and an opening tailgate. There are even clips to side-mount a fishing rod and a pickaxe. The 4x4 comes with a trailer and speedboat, the latter featuring a rather neat little retractable outboard motor. In some ways it brings to mind Set 4433 Dirt Bike Transporter and actually stands up reasonably well to the comparison despite the difference in scale and an almost 20-year difference in release dates.

Last to be built, but definitely not least, were the cabin and scenery (picture below; click to enlarge). I got a huge buzz out of building on that wonderful baseplate, but the building pleasure was almost criminally shortlived, lasting as it did for a paltry 10 building steps. The end result might seem slightly blocky to readers of less advanced years but it's also utterly charming, and the baseplate works beautifully. Interestingly, the positioning of certain features - a couple of the trees, the bush and the campfire - differs between the building guide and the box art as you'll see in later pictures.

You can see the finished set below (click to enlarge) complete with all minifigures, horse and vehicles laid out consistent with the box art. While I'm definitely not a fan of large, prefabricated LEGO elements like the rock faces (known in AFOL parlance as BURPs and LURPs) and the rope bridge, even those can't spoil the view and (say it quietly) they actually work rather well in the context of the set. It's quite hard to believe that the set only contains 241 pieces as there's so much going on - definitely a case of "less is more".

A rear view of the set (below; click to enlarge) reveals the interior of the cabin. There are some rudimentary furnishings to be found within, and the cabin is connected to a secret cave which extends beneath the rock formation - delicious !

As you may have gathered, I think this set is epic. From the brilliant baseplate to the vehicles and scenery, everything just works a treat, and thanks to some excellent and thoughtful design the set is so much more than just the sum of its parts. It looks lovely, and there's also lots to like in terms of play opportunities for the younger builder; certainly my youngster was drawn to the set like a moth to a flame.

I got a good deal on the set from eBay, but they don't come up that often, so if patience isn't your thing and you're looking to get hold of a copy quickly then Bricklink is your best bet - at the time of writing there are 17 copies of the set listed for sale there in varying states of completeness. You can pick up a complete, boxed example for less than £25 plus shipping; you'll need to shell out around £100 plus shipping for a mint, sealed example, however. Although for a bona fide classic like this, it might just be worth it....

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Yellows !

My passion for LEGO exists, as much as is reasonably possible, in a vacuum, unaffected by most environmental factors. Regardless of whatever else is going on in my life, be it work, illness, holidays or whatever, my enthusiasm for collecting and building LEGO remains largely undimmed, even if the actual time available is limited. Truth be told, a passion for LEGO is actually a welcome relief from day to day pressures.

I have to confess to feeling pretty distracted right now, though. My beloved Watford Football Club, a.k.a. The Hornets, have reached the Championship Play-offs, and are potentially only 3 games away from claiming a place in the English Premier League. They actually had the chance to gain promotion outright last weekend without the need to endure the Play-offs, but having failed to grasp the opportunity for a variety of reasons, they now get a second chance, starting tonight (Thursday) with an away game at Leicester City. Given the trials and tribulations of Watford Football Club over the past few seasons, even having reached third place in the rankings at the end of the regular season constitutes a massive achievement and cause for celebration, regardless of the outcome of the Play-offs to come. And so it is that by way of a tribute to my yellow-clad heroes, I thought I'd write a football-related posting on Gimme LEGO this week.

Me, sort of
So, football-related LEGO, then. Well, the good news is that over the years LEGO have produced a surprisingly prodigious number of football-related sets. According to the Brickset database, a total of 71 football-related sets were released between 2000 and 2007, from individual footballers and promotional polybags to some more substantial sets such as 2006's Set 3569 Grand Soccer Stadium (below) which contains 386 pieces.

Set 3569 Grand Soccer Stadium - spot the LEGO....
The bad news is that I don't actually own any of these football-themed sets.... They do come up on eBay and elsewhere on a reasonably frequent basis, and they're generally available at bargain basement prices. Problem is that I've never actually bothered buying any of them as they look, well, a bit rubbish. I was therefore facing the prospect of abandoning my idea of a football-focused post when it suddenly struck me that LEGO have in fact produced a football-related set much more recently. This year, in fact. And not only that, but I actually own it. Problem solved....

Yes, yes - I know it's a Friends set, but it's the only football-related set I've got, and beggars can't be choosers. Anyway, there's no point in me pretending to be all macho about this - I already blew my cover by previously admitting here to liking the Friends minidolls more than I expected, not to mention raving about all the new colours and interesting parts that you get in the sets.

My copy of Set 41011 Stephanie's Soccer Practice (above) is a bit squashed thanks to the local postie's insistence on trying to cram anything smaller than a housebrick through my letter box regardless of the degree of damage incurred in the process. The branding of the 2013 Friends sets is very similar to that of the 2012 sets, although the group shot of the girls on both the front and back of the boxes has taken on a more cartoony, and dare I say it cruder, appearance. The back of the box (below) highlights the play-features of the set, such as they are - Stephanie's football, a mechanism for mechanically propelling the football towards the goal, and, er, Stephanie holding a banana. It was half-time oranges in my day.

Opening the box reveals two sealed bags (one big and one small) of parts, a folded instruction booklet, and a green 4 x 12 plate. The front cover of the instruction booklet is almost a carbon-copy of the front of the box. The booklet itself weighs in at 32 pages cover to cover, which is quite a feat considering that the set only contains 80 pieces. The 23-page building guide culminates in a line-up of all the set's constituent elements (picture below - click to enlarge). We're also treated to an aerial shot of Heartlake City, which is where our football-loving heroine resides, a page of snapshots of the 5 Friends going about their business, advertising for some of the 2013 Friends sets, and a two-page inventory of parts, amongst other things.

Parts-wise we get a typically eye-searing combination of colours, something which has been a feature of the Friends theme from the start. The set contains parts in 18 different colours, rising to 21 if you include the parts making up Stephanie. This seems incredible given the modest piece count. Furthermore, some of the colours such as bright green, bright pink, dark orange, magenta and medium azure blue, are found relatively rarely in LEGO sets. You can see a selection of some of the more interesting part/colour combinations in the picture below (click to enlarge). The football is unique to this set, and all the other parts appear in 10 sets or less in their respective colours.

The set contains just one minifigure, or more accurately minidoll, that of Stephanie in her football kit (below - click to enlarge). She's unique to the set in this attire, although 5 more versions of Stephanie wearing other outfits can be found in a variety of 2012 and 2013 Friends sets. Stephanie's football kit  - white shirt with light blue sleeves and magenta trim, dark blue shorts - isn't obviously based upon the kit of any real football team that I can think of, and she's really not going to get very far with those football boots, but when all is said and done she does kind of look the part. Except for her huge hair, which she'll really need to tie back....

As you can see below, there's no backprint on Stephanie's torso, not even a number nor (and you'll need to take my word for this) her name at the top of the shirt in modern footballing fashion. There is however some very prominent text - "(c) 2009 LEGO" - embossed just above the waistband; I'm not sure if this is an indication of LEGO's product development cycle, the date when LEGO patented the minidolls. or even both of these.

Assembly of the various structures included in the set (below - click to enlarge) takes but a few moments. Stephanie is provided with a goal, a dugout and bench plus water cooler,  some cones to dribble round, and a rudimentary structure to flick the ball into the goal. The latter seems a bit pointless, to be honest, capable as it is of propelling the ball a few centimetres at best. All of these structures are characteristically garish in true Friends style.

You can see all the elements of the set laid out below; in addition to providing Stephanie with everything she needs to hone her footballing skills, LEGO have also thoughtfully provided Stephanie with a puppy, which as every true football fan knows is an indispensible part of any football practice.

Set 41011 Stephanie's Soccer Practice retails at £9.99 / $9.99, although as I write this the set is currently available at 33% off RRP (£6.66) from Folks in the U.S. will have to pay pretty much RRP (click here to buy) although it still works out cheaper than the UK price.

And now, with the set built and my posting written it's unfortunately time to return to reality and start biting my nails again in anticipation of tonights Play-off game. If you've enjoyed this posting then please do me a favour and keep your fingers crossed for a Watford victory...

Come On You Hornets !

Get your Watford shirt on - you're going in goal....

* Custom Dr. Dave Watford F. C. minifig crafted by - cheers, Caz & Nick !