LEGO is probably my favorite toy line of all time. It’s definitely the one I’ve spent the most time with, too. I haven’t written about it much on this website yet, though. In time and when/if things get back to normal for me, I actually have a few sets to review. Until then, I wanted to talk about a weird, dreary year for LEGO that had a pretty profound affect on me.
But since most of you are here for GI Joe, we’ll do some of that, too. So today we’ll take an in-depth look at Russian Funskool Budo and talk about the state of LEGO in 1999.
Russian Funskool GI Joe Budo
If you’re just here for GI Joe stuff, you’re in luck. You can click the link below for an in-depth look at Russian Funskool Budo, which includes comparisons to the Hasbro version. The accessories on this one are quite fun, and they make a nice addition to the 88 domestic figure.
So if you’re not interested in LEGO at all, you can click through to the Budo page and be done with it.
For all 12 of you who are still with me, enjoy the rest of the post!
The State of LEGO in 1999
1999 is not a year most LEGO fans remember fondly. There was some good stuff (and some stuff that would later go on to define the brand), but it was not a banner year for great designs or creativity. Overall, anyway. The busy, X-TREME graphic design philosophy behind the 1999 catalog kind of gives it all away.
I had a house fire in the summer of 1998, which I’ve mentioned before. A few months before the fire, one of my friends down the street decided he was too old for his LEGO and sold his whole collection to me for $60, collected in a massive trash bag. I spread all the pieces across the basement floor and started building what I could from the instructions he had. He had an impressive collection.
I was finally able to build the Deep Freeze Defender and Ice Station Odyssey from the Ice Planet 2002 line after a couple weeks of sorting and work. I only had small Ice Planet sets (which I loved dearly), so those two big sets awed me in a way I’d only been awed a few times before with sets like King’s Mountain Fortress and Crystal Explorer Sub.
Like most kids without rich parents, most of my LEGO sets were on the small side.
I was really excited after reconstructing those two Ice Planet sets and was really eager to build more cool sets from the provided instructions and my own creations, and then disaster struck.
All of my LEGO melted into one solid molten plastic blob in the basement.
With the small amount of insurance money we got to spend on reacquiring frivolous things, I decided to try and remake my LEGO collection. This didn’t happen until 1999, though, as we lived in a motel until our house was rebuilt. Motel rooms and LEGO do not mix– I knew that even back then.
As it turned out, 1999 didn’t have much to satisfy my prior LEGO interests. The Space selection was meager, featuring only a few new Insectoids sets. I was never really interested in them, and I was pining for Blacktron, M-Tron, Spyrius, Ice Planet, and Space Police. Castle was replaced by the Ninja theme, which was cool, but most of the good sets were expensive. There were no Pirates to be found.
And Aquazone, my favorite theme of all, only saw one release in all of 1999– a tiny little polybag set I never saw in a store.
So here’s what I was left with.
Rock Raiders and Space
Rock Raiders was not a Space theme, but it was a sci-fi theme. In a pinch, it was good enough for me. I didn’t have a lot of money to spend, so I bought the minifigure 5-pack and one small set. I liked the figures a lot, and I also kind of liked the weird aesthetic of the sets. It was something totally new. Even though these heroes didn’t have spaceships and laser guns, I found myself really appreciating them.
I’ve mentioned this place before, but my hometown had a skate shop downtown that also had two toy aisles. They mostly sold old toys, and I acquired some Transformers, Dino Riders, and other treasures long after their expiration dates there. So, naturally, I went there looking for LEGO, too. I bought a few bigger sets from several themes, since things were always cheap at this skate shop.
Among those sets were a couple Exploriens sets. Exploriens were pretty similar to the 90s Space sets I was used to, only the actual builds weren’t nearly as good as what came before them. The figures and pieces were quite good, though.
With the Rock Raiders and Exploriens combined, I had some fun sci-fi adventures and built some neat stuff. There were also a few UFO polybags at the dollar store, so I was able to army build some enemies for the Exploriens and Rock Raiders to fight.
These sets were not as good as the Space kits I was used to, but they did the trick. Still, I felt like something was missing. As much as I liked Rock Raiders and Exploriens, they just didn’t live up to what came before.
Ninja and Castle
Aquazone was my favorite theme the second it came out. Space was close behind. I always had a soft spot for Castle and Pirates, too. I was a pretty simple kid in that regard.
There were no knights as I knew them in 1999. I was able to find a couple of Fright Knights sets at the skate shop, and I liked them well enough. I liked the spooky imagery and the figures. The sets themselves, though, were not great.
The Ninja sets released in 1999, on the other hand, looked incredible. The problem was that most of the affordable sets were boring siege engine type builds or small sets I never saw in stores. And the big, cool fortresses were way too expensive.
So I ended up with a little catapult and Ninja Knights, the minifigure 5-pack. And let me tell you, that samurai figure blew my mind. The second I got him, he was slaying Fright Knights left and right.
I still really like the Ninja theme and think it’s a worthy successor to every year of Castle that came before. I just wish there had been some better affordable sets at the time. I have a soft spot for the Fright Knights figures, too– especially the Witch and the Bat Lord. Those figures, along with their trusty black dragon, were the plastic embodiment of Bauhaus’ In the Flat Field.
I was happy with the Castle figures I got that year and had a ton of fun with them, but I wasn’t inspired the way I was with the older Black Knights, Crusaders, Forestmen, and Black Falcons.
Are we beginning to see a pattern?
Adventurers and Wild West
1998 introduced the Adventurers theme to LEGO, which is still a fan favorite. It was something totally new for the brand, and featured a plucky crew of heroes fighting sinister industrialists, mummies, and skeletons in the early 1900s. 1999 marked the second year of Adventurers, which had a jungle theme instead of a desert theme. The designers did a lot of good work on these sets, and they must have been where most of the inspiration for the year went. Other themes from 1999 seem lazy by comparison.
I only got a couple of small sets from the 1999 Adventurers line, but I was able to merge them with the Scorpion Tracker, an amazing little car released the previous year.
I also merged them with a few bigger sets from the Wild West theme, which I again found at the skate shop on deep discount.
The Wild West sets blew my mind, and the Adventurers figures fit in almost perfectly. I was able to make custom figures from some Wild West duplicates and the Adventurers I was less invested in. There were tons of shootouts and bank robberies and horse chases.
Those two themes were such a good fit because Adventurers made heavy use of the new rifle and revolver introduced in the Wild West theme. Plus, early 1900s and late 1800s fashion sensibilities didn’t seem all that different– at least as far as rugged gunslingers and tomb raiders were concerned.
Overall, these two themes were responsible for the most fun I had with LEGO in 1999, and worked very well together. They showed me that The LEGO Group was not just phoning it in, even if they were cutting some corners.
Town and Space Port
I’ve always liked Town well enough, but I never enjoyed it as much as the “genre” themes. The 1999 Town releases were bland, sloppy, and uninspiring to me at the time and still mostly are to this day. I didn’t buy a single one.
I have since developed a soft spot for the wacky, ramshackle Space Port sub-theme, though.
Here’s where things get interesting again. Throwbots, in many ways, were the precursor to Bionicle. Bionicle is the biggest LEGO theme I’ve never been into or really purchased anything from. I do think they look quite cool and think the lore is neat, but I don’t love building my own action figures. I kind of enjoy keeping my action figures and building block experiences separate, for whatever reason.
Throwbots were little buildable figures, all with a wacky arm that allowed them to throw discs. The gimmick was not great. The figures, however, were pretty good. I bought two of them!
And the only reason I bought them was because venerable Transformers reviewer Dave Van Domelen mentioned them on his website, and I instantly thought they might be fun opponents for my Transformers. And that’s how I used them.
Granted, I didn’t get a ton of mileage out of them, but there is something inherently fun about a blue frog robot with a spear gun.
I think Throwbots hold more interest for Bionicle fans than they do for me, but they were a cool thing to experience at the time.
And now we come to the theme you probably wanted me to talk about from the beginning– Star Wars.
When I was younger and there were no Star Wars toys for kids my age (the Kenner toy line missed me by a country mile, and Power of the Force 2 didn’t come until 1995 or so), I used to try to make Star Wars things out of LEGO. I’d use a Blacktron I figure for Darth Vader, build terrible, misshapen multicolored X-Wings, and assemble a Luke Skywalker or Han Solo from various Town minifigure parts.
Imagine my surprise when I went over to a friend’s house shortly after Christmas in 1999 and saw actual Star Wars LEGO sets. LEGO didn’t really fuck with licensed properties at the time, so my mind was blown. My childhood wishes had come true and there were actual, official Star Wars LEGO sets. But, as I’d learn over the years, they came at a price.
The only Star Wars sets I ever bought before 2012 or so were ones I purchased in late 1999. I got two small sets– the one with Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn and the one with Luke and two Scout Troopers.
Those didn’t offer too much in the way of Star Wars adventure when combined, so I used the figures for customs and was happy to finally have real lightsabers for my Space figures, which were just Exploriens and Rock Raiders.
I used Darth Maul’s body, hood, and cape combined with a skeleton head to make a lich for my Fright Knights. Qui-Gon’s body, head, and hair were donated to make more custom figures for my Western and Adventurers setup. And that was pretty much that.
I thought the bigger sets looked neat, but not enough that I wanted to spend what little money I had on them. They were expensive.
But they also foretold what would happen to LEGO in some ways.
Now LEGO is a licensing machine. They make sets for Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Disney, and the god damn Minions. There’s plenty more to mention, too.
And, in many ways, Star Wars replaced LEGO’s original Space themes. There have been several since LEGO Star Wars started but, with the exception of maybe Alien Conquest or Space Police III, none of them have really lived up to what came before Exploriens. And that’s because there’s really only room for one big sci-fi and spaceship theme at LEGO, and Star Wars eats most of the budget and design talent in that regard.
I can’t blame them, as Star Wars makes them a ton of money and brought them back from the brink of bankruptcy. LEGO was not doing well in the late 90s, despite releasing some good stuff. I guess we can thank Star Wars for its continued existence, but I’ll always be a bit resentful that Star Wars replaced the wonderfully unique world of LEGO Space.
So, we’ve established that 1999 was a shaky year for LEGO, especially for their legacy Space, Town, and Castle themes. New blood like Adventurers made things interesting, and Star Wars changed everything, but 99 was not an iconic year for the brand.
In 1999, I missed what had come before.
That was maybe my first real experience of yearning for the past. I was only 14 in 1999, so it was a strange experience to be dissatisfied with current offerings and to think the past was better.
And, in this case, the past was better.
But that didn’t hold true for long. 1999 was just a hiccup. It didn’t prove that older things are always better. LEGO bounced back with a ton of themes I love in the decade after 1999– the aforementioned Alien Conquest and Space Police 3, Monster Fighters, Atlantis, several great Castle themes, Pirates, and more. And in more recent years, we’ve had the bonkers legacy of Ninjago and the flash-in-the-pan brilliance of Nexo Kinghts, too.
LEGO in 1999 was a good lesson that sometimes the past is shiny, but the future might be even shinier. Everything we love eventually hits a rough patch and that’s okay.
Even when it comes to trivial things like plastic building blocks and claw-handed mini-people, there’s always hope in the future.
Thanks for reading my novel about building blocks for children in the year before Y2K. I have a very fun review coming up on Thursday, too.
What was your least favorite year for LEGO? What do you think of Funskool Budo? Let me know in the comments!