But in the years leading up to this, the LEGO Group has been celebrating all sorts of anniversaries – and back in 2019, I wrote this column bemoaning how spurious some of those anniversaries are. It seems more relevant than ever now that we’ve had a proper, bona fide anniversary to celebrate. Congratulations to the LEGO Group for 90 years!
This year marks 20 years since the release of the first Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, as well as the LEGO theme based on George Lucas’s universe. To acknowledge the occasion, five of the latest Star Wars sets come in retro packaging with a special anniversary logo. It follows the double-whammy of 2018 anniversaries, when the LEGO Group celebrated 60 years of the classic brick and 40 years of the minifigure.
These occasions are an odd thing – they always seem like a great idea to look back at topics or themes, as we here at Blocks regularly do to tie into significant milestones. But products based on nostalgia are tricky to execute well.
Taking these new LEGO Star Wars sets as an example, as well as featuring black and silver packaging, they include minifigures based on those released in the early days of the theme. Each minifigure seeks to match the classic version it is based on, but with unique printing on the reverse of the torso to distinguish it from the authentic early versions.
This column first appeared in Blocks magazine Issue 54. If you take out a subscription to Blocks, the LEGO magazine for fans, you’ll get a free digital subscription that includes every single issue we’ve every published thrown in. Find out more here.
As for the sets that the minifigures come with, they are not related to the minifigure or specifically related to the anniversary. There seems to have been some effort in the marketing to indicate that these are remakes of classic sets, but so is practically every LEGO Star Wars release at this point – Slave I has been available numerous times over the last two decades. The sets themselves are not even thematically linked to the commemorative minifigures they are packed with.
Last year, a selection of sets were released that contained random bricks, much like the Classic theme does. As well as basic bricks, bespoke elements were included, with inspiration for things to build found on the box and in a booklet that was included with each set. These were intended as a celebration of 60 years of the brick, with a commemorative 2×4 tile included. A more appealing set that included the same tile was 40290 60 Years of the LEGO Brick, which included four models to build, each representing a classic set from four of the most nostalgia-inducing themes – Town, Castle, Pirates and Space. This worked well because the entire set was based around the history of the brick.
Additional sets to commemorate the occasion were released exclusively at Walmart stores in the USA, with three models in the traditional blocky style released in retro packaging. While it was neat to see the classic boxes back, owning a modern imitation of a vintage LEGO set is not the same as owning a vintage LEGO set.
10184 Town Plan is perhaps the best example of how an anniversary set can be done well. It was inspired by a classic set, but offered a new building experience that would fit into a modern LEGO layout. It was released in 2008 to commemorate 50 years of the brick, with gold bricks included in each anniversary set released that year.
When LEGO Star Wars celebrated the theme’s 10th anniversary a decade ago, the only thing that made the sets any different to any regular release in the line was the commemorative packaging they were available in. 7754 Home One Mon Calamari Star Cruiser was a little different, as it was released after fans were asked to vote from a selection of possible sets that had not been part of the theme before.
For the 40th anniversary of LEGO Technic in 2017, a small, printed piece was included in each set released in the theme, noting the occasion. It was a nice, subtle way to acknowledge the long running theme without resorting to gimmicks.
The LEGO Group is in a tricky bind when it comes to commemorating the big milestones. It’s an opportunity to offer collectors something special and unique, but given that hundreds of new sets are released every year, what could truly be unique enough to stand out? Replicating what has gone before doesn’t really work, as the original sets still exist and can usually be had on the secondary market. Doing something new, as the 20th anniversary Star Wars sets do, just makes for more new sets that would be released anyway.
Perhaps the best move would be to stop producing anniversary products for a while, retiring the concept until a big milestone comes around, like the 75th anniversary of the brick in 2033. Special printing on a tile or a minifigure might make for a fun novelty item, but if such trinkets didn’t exist, it is unlikely that LEGO fans would be clamouring for them. The best way to honour the history and tradition of the LEGO Group is to keep innovating and keep improving the quality of the products.