Look around your house. There is a good chance you have some Lego about, and now there’s a good chance the song “everything is awesome” from the Lego movie is now playing in your head. It’s hard not to appreciate Lego. A universally loved toy that encourages constructive and creative thinking. Walking into Grooves toy shop here in Orkney, you can’t help it when you first go in to see the shelves of Lego. But did you know Lego almost went bankrupt, that what is widely thought of as the most successful toys of all time were almost no more ? It’s true. But in a dark time, 6 great heroes emerged on a strange island and fought a sinister shadowy force. Their Story helped to keep Lego going through these dark times until the current age shone its light.
Now this isn’t going to me talking about the full history of the franchise, or going through its entire story (there’s a nearly 10 hour YouTube video on that if you want to hunt that down). No this will be a brief section talking about its early years. This is mainly because it was those early years I was more familiar with the line. Similar to what happened with Transformers as the 2000s began to hit I was less prone to get toys for myself due to not having an income as I was still a child (plus video games). So, after the first movie I’m more a back ground observer, so unless this article proves fun to write and for you to read I probably won’t go too into what happens after the first movie.
Before I get into Bionicle I should start with what I talked about in the beginning, namely the state Lego was in. It wasn’t good. For multiple reasons ranging to the patent on Lego’s designs running out to what profits they had being gobbled up by the license fees of Star Wars, and Harry Potter Lego was doing badly. You see while things like Star Wars are exceedingly popular, because they are licensed that means Lego had to share the sales of them. What’s more these brands’ popularity was highly related to public interest which waned if there were no movies or media related to them, yet Lego still had to pay a fee for retaining the license.
There were several ideas that came before Bionicle. Some Like Slivers can be seen as a bit of a proto Bionicle but to go into why would break up the flow of what I’m talking about, just going to say certain aspects of the core release looking back are very reminiscent of Bionicles.
The concept that became Bionicle started as something called Bone Heads of Voodoo Island. Now those reading this that already know, form a line, can go “well yes I can kind of see that”. The concept was then looked at by Christian Faber a man who was currently battling a brain tumor (yes, the story of the franchise that kept Lego from going bankrupt involves a man fighting a brain tumor). From his imagination a deep and fascinating story began to unfold.
It’s worth noting there were other people working on the concept but you really can’t pass up Christian Faber given the circumstances. That’s not to say the leader of the Bionicle writing team, Bob Thompson and freelance UK writer Alastair Swinnerton, are not also to thank for this, in fact they are the ones who gave us the names of the first set of lead characters. The group began to build a very unique world that over the many years would reveal mysteries and wonders as the story unfolded. While Faber designed the concept of the world it was these two that developed the story. A noteworthy element is that one extremely major reveal was always planned to begin with and in fact happened at the end of the first year, but as the story evolved that was pushed back to a later point in that story.
Bionicle was then first released in test markets such as Europe and then America in mid 2001. The adverts showed strange canisters landing on the Island of Mata Nui opening up as robotic figures formed from the parts inside, placing a mask on themselves and becoming brightly coloured. It told of 6 heroes that would come together to defeat evil. The main set of toys was the 6 heroes called the Toa who were packaged not in boxes but in canisters that matched those that the animation showed them emerging from, a nice little tying-in between the toys and the lore. It’s worth noting that 6 colourful characters was not a new thing to Lego. Releases Like Slizers only a year earlier also did this but while that had them facing against each other akin to Autobots vs Decepticons the adverts made clear the 6 Toa were on the same side. These 6 canister characters Lewa, Gali, Pohatu, Onua, Kopaka and Tahu were the core release with some smaller sets and some larger accompanying them. The adverts told that they would collect the masks. Each Toa had a mask that they came with and could wear the other Toa’s masks. Sold separately, they were in individual packs that contained random coloured versions of the masks including the rare gold and silver versions. The Toa were very affordable at only £5 meaning the core characters didn’t cost much to get, but the masks provided a collectible element and the larger sets representing the wildlife of Mata Nui ranged from £11 to £70 depending on size. By keeping the core stuff affordable it was very easy to get into and this would be the design going forward, a set of 6 core characters accompanied by a range of smaller sets, a collectible element depending on the wave (with wave one being the masks) and larger more complicated sets that went for a higher cost. Even smaller more Basic sets of this first release were sold with Macdonald Happy Meals.
But it was not the toys alone that sold the premise. Bionicle came out in the dawn of the new millennium. Some things like Slizers just meant they slapped on a millennium word and theme and made it more shiny. With Bionicle it meant they took advantage of the new accessibility of technology like the internet. For it was on the Bionicle website that told the main story of the first chapter of Bionicle’s 10 year long story. The canisters the Toa came in not only contained the web address for the Bionicle website but by spinning the plastic cover you could find a hidden passcode to be entered into it. But the main draw of the website was essentially a point and click adventure game that told the story of the Toa’s emergence on Mata Nui all the way to their confrontation with the shadowy force that threatened the Island The MAKUTA! In the game you took the role of a Matoran one of the residents of the Island called Takua and you were introduced to other characters not just the Toa as the island world of the Bionicle setting was unveiled to you and many of the characters you would meet in game would grow and develop as the story continued in the years ahead. For many this was the main means of learning the story. The website and start of the game told of the legend of the island and the coming of the Makuta in almost a mythological religious way making the story seem all the more grander. But this was not the only way. The story was being told as a comic book which was also released along with the first wave.
Bionicle was a hit with the sales of the first year exceeding $100 million thus for the time being saving Lego from bankruptcy. But this was not a one off story ending with the confrontation of the Makuta. For at the end of the game Takua sees a strange hatch opening. Finding inside countless pods with something inside, a strange creature bursts from it, and while Takua escapes many MANY more pods are opening. As the second wave hit, long TV Ads were shown explaining what these creatures were. They were the Boroko swarms and they were the second main wave of Bionicle releases. Like the Toa they came in 6 different colours each in a canister resembling the pods they were shown emerging from (and made them rather stackable). The marketing sold the swarm as a huge threat and the most chilling aspect of them being the Krana that controlled them. These soft creatures could be placed on the faces of a maskless Toa or Matoran and control them! The Krana were also the collectibles of the set. The Toa needed to find one of every Krana to open the way to the Queens of the Bohrok swarms – the Queens being one of the larger sets of that wave.
A small but interesting detail is that the first Bionicle wave was released with the Lego Technic brand but all future waves would drop that and just be released as Lego Bionicle.
Next week: Part 2 of The Legend of Bionicle.