There are certain classic LEGO themes that have a special place in the hearts of us Adult Fans of LEGO (AFOL). Pirates and Castle are two that many fans remember fondly, and build impressive creations that are often superior to the classic sets from ‘back in the day’. But another theme, that didn’t have the longevity of Castle or even Pirates, was LEGO Western.
LEGO Western launched in 1996 with a second wave of sets released in 1997. A total of 16 sets were released (including promo sets), which is small in number when compared to some of the multi-year themes that have been and gone since. Yet Western creations frequently pop up on various fan sites, and recently LEGO CUUSOO saw the excellent Modular Western Town receive 10,000 supporters.
Looking at some of the Town releases in 1996, it seems that the LEGO Group was looking to make an impact in the USA that year. The romantic ideal of the Wild West is stronger in the USA, which makes sense, making this product line a sensible introduction to capture more of the US market. The LEGO Town releases I refer to, much like the Forest Police and Forest Fire sets of 2012, are more American rural flavoured than typical releases in the range. Eagle Stunt Flyer (6615) and Gator Landing (6563) are examples of this. This shouldn’t be overstated, however, as there were plenty of other themes that year that would have broad appeal through different countries.
The initial year of LEGO Western focused on archetypal locations. The Sheriff’s Office, the local stores, the fort for the cavalry. Each is instantly recognisable from any classic Western film, none in particular yet all at once. One of the great things that made this line so appealing was the specially moulded or decorated elements – that today would seem standard, such as cowboy hats, large barrels and those dynamite tiles. This was the first theme to include ‘explodable’ cells so the bandits could break their partners in crime out of jail. The decorating on the mini-figures’ torsos was also excellent, with more detail on the face prints than had been seen before.
The following year expanded the story, with ten sets adding Native Americans to the mix. This expanded the story ideas possible with LEGO Western, in much the same way that current LEGO themes add a new layer in their second year. Once again, exciting new elements were added with nice new head pieces, newly printed horses and tree stumps. Some of the builds were less satisfying than those in the 1996 sets, but the Rapid River Village (6766) id a notably fun set. The Native American sets do not seem to share the same degree of long lasting love that the regular Western sets do, but they gave additional life to the line.
It is impressive to see how LEGO Western has stayed in the minds of LEGO collectors despite it having only been around for a couple of years. But with new elements such as an actual dynamite stick, rather than the printed tile used in the past, it is easy to see how a resurrected Western theme could retain the classic styling but with a modern approach. The 2009 Pirates launch shows how it could be done successfully. The buzz around LEGO Western that exists looks likely to pay off next year, it will be interesting to see whether the Modular Western Town makes it off the drawing board or is considered too similar to a product line already planned to be produced. Watch this space.