Wednesday, 16 April 2014

From Spinners to the Cinema: LEGO Ninjago

Ninjago was back this year after supposedly featuring “The Final Battle” in 2013. Fans were excited to see the Masters of Spinjitzu return facing a new set of villains. With a feature film release in development, there’s bound to be much more Ninjago to come too. Let’s look back at how this theme has developed over the past four years…

Ninjago kicked off with a collection of sets along with spinners. This introduced the concept of each new key LEGO theme featuring a gimmick such as the spinners, which were linked to the story as part of the ninjas’ special Spintjitzu form of martial arts. The spinners were based on the Beybladez concept, with the mini-figure and its weapons attached to the base. Players then spin against their opponent to see whether their Ninja, or the opponent’s evil skeleton, wins. Top Trumps style cards were also included with each blister carded spinner to add an extra element of play.

The actual sets for the theme varied between steam-punk style skeleton vehicles and cool locations such as the Fire Temple (2507) and Blacksmith Shop (2508). The four Ninjas appear throughout the sets along with Sensei Wu and their skeleton enemies. It was these uniquely designed sets that appealed to the adult collectors who became intrigued by Ninjago, despite initial scepticism. 

That scepticism was proved unfounded when Ninjago proved to be huge success, with support from a big multi-media push including a TV series. The Spinjitzu Starter Set (2257) was in short supply approaching Summer, before LEGO finally managed to ramp up production to meet demand. By the end of the year many retailers had to clearance the spinners, but the sets continued to be popular and were some of the best-selling toys of Christmas 2011.

In 2012 the packaging for the products moved from the red design to green, as the villains moved from skeletons to snakes (or more precisely, snake-men). Apparently the market research with children found that undead evil skeletons weren’t evil enough (!), leading the LEGO designers to come up with snakes as a suitable replacement. There was a new assortment of spinners, as well as booster packs at a lower price point. The Booster Packs didn’t include a spinner, but did include the mini-figure, weapons and trading cards. This time the Ninjago sets varied between high-tech Ninja vehicles belonging to one of the Masters of Spinjitzu, and green accented vehicles featuring their reptilian enemies.

Last year was due to be the final year of Ninjago, but plans changed after the continuing success of the theme. In fact, it was such a certainty within LEGO that this would be the final year of the theme that the boxes were marked “The Final Battle”. The spinners had been ditched by this point, and the focus was on the final confrontation between the Golden Ninja and Lord Garmadon. The weapons that were so important to the storyline behind 2011’s Ninjago sets turned out to be instrumental in winning the final battle.

In no small part due to the announcement of a movie being developed based on LEGO Ninjago, a new wave of sets was released in January 2014. These sets received little fanfare, with most of the focus on The LEGO Movie, Legends of Chima and Friends themes. It had been found that children wanted to see mini-figures of the Ninjas without their hoods, and needing some variety the new sets did indeed feature unmasked Ninjas battling robots. Half of the sets were the hero vehicles of the Ninjas, and the other half were robotic vehicles belonging to the villainous robots (one even including an evil version of Sensei Wu).

After four years of Ninjago, the theme is likely to get a fresh push in 2015. The movie will hit in either 2015 or 2016, which might see a full-scale reboot of the theme. Fans will be excited to see what comes next, as Ninjago has successfully moved from being a one-off novelty theme to a modern LEGO staple along with City and Star Wars. 

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