Lego are making Space sets again!
More or less.
(I originally started writing this as another comment on the MetaFilter page, but it turned into a whole big thing so I fluffed it up into this blog post. Regular readers may find this a bit repetitive, but there’s got to be something on this blog for people who’ve just stumbled in, looking worried and trying not to make eye contact with the regulars.)
The first Space Police sets came out a year or three into my own Lego “Dark Age” (the period of time between when a person gets too old for Lego, and when the same person gets old enough to start playing with it again). They were clearly Space sets, just with a few new pieces and a different colour scheme.
Lego entered their own Dark Age shortly after the first Space Police sets. In the 1990s, they spent a lot of time making sets that were difficult to love, because they had lots of special-purpose pieces. They even made “juniorised” sets that were, in essence, Lego for kids that didn’t actually want to play with Lego. Those sets contained many complex single pieces that should have been assembled out of several other pieces - see this post for a particularly egregious example.
They’re much better now, though. Lego still have a few licensed lines that us oldies usually don’t much care for. Personally, I think almost all of their Star Wars sets look awful; I think Star Wars ships just don’t look right in Lego, except in the large scale used in the multi-hundred-dollar flagship sets. And then there are the “Bionicle” action-figures-made-from-Lego that also have little appeal to most adult Lego fans - though the skeletons of Bionicle figures are very Technic-y, with many very useful pieces. Technic itself has changed a lot, though not actually for the worse, if you ask me.
But Lego have also gotten back to their roots, and now make plenty of good old-fashioned sets, large and small, full of general-purpose pieces just like in the old days. (Except the packaging is flimsier, with none of the useful old blow-moulded plastic trays; now it’s just a box full of plastic bags of pieces.)
There are now many fantastic midrange sets with only a barely higher percentage of specialised pieces than there were 25 years ago. And there are also sets that could have been sneaked into the 1982 catalogue without looking out of place. Look at the #6192 Pirate Building Set, for instance. Lego has an actual two-piece shark now, which looks hilarious with some frickin’ lasers on its head but isn’t general-purpose at all. There’s nothing it can possibly be except a shark with a few connecting studs. But the Pirate Building Set’s shark is a cheerful-looking blocky creature made from several separate pieces, in the old style. (See also that set’s catalogue-number-adjacent relatives, the Fire Fighter and Castle Building Sets.)
If that’s the kind of Lego you like - or just the kind you want to buy for your kid - then you can ignore the licensed stuff and just get the new-old-style sets. You don’t even have to buy sets you don’t much want just because they contain pieces you need for the model of your dreams: There’s an auction site just for Lego full of enterprising dealers who part out sets and sell the pieces separately. So you can, for instance, buy a few yards of the new chunky track pieces, and the sprockets to drive them, surprisingly cheaply.
I also harbour a great affection for the current “pocket money” sets, that give you just a minifig and a smattering of accessories. A better way to inexpensively start to tease other grown-ups out of their own Dark Ages has not yet been discovered.
There’s this cop and his dog, this street trader, this brand-new Space Police officer, this garbage man, this builder, this fireman, this street cleaner (with one of those uncommon rubbery brushes), this kayaker, this God-bearded (Shark!) wizard, this knight, this mailbox robot, this troll, and this little spaceship. (Note that the pre-2009 sets are no longer likely to be available at your local department-store-with-a-Lego-section.)
My absolute favourite, though, is the pirate with a fish on a stick, and an extremely minimalist campfire.
The pirate’s opposite number is much better armed, but that brave smile cannot conceal the obvious fact that he’s having a lot less fun.