In the late 1990s, the LEGO Company found itself in financial trouble. There was no singular, definitive explanation as to why the beloved Danish toy company was losing money, but it was speculated that their risky ventures outside of toy manufacturing, such as software and the Legoland parks, were to blame. Whatever the case, LEGO needed a secret weapon, and they were looking at creating a theme tied to an intricate story. “Theme” is a term LEGO uses to refer to a specific group of products united under various design, plot, and branding elements, and they can be original to LEGO or based on a licensed property (like a film franchise). In this case, LEGO was looking at developing something with lore that kids could follow and defined characters they could become emotionally invested in. In late 1997, work began on this line that would change the trajectory of the LEGO Company forever.
That theme was LEGO Star Wars.
Released in 1999, LEGO’s first tie-in line was a hit. However, LEGO Star Wars wouldn’t be enough to help the company financially as much as they needed. At the time, licensing costs with Lucasfilm kept LEGO from immediately making back an ideal profit, and it was uncertain if the line would still appeal to kids when the hype of the Star Wars Special Editions and The Phantom Menace died down before the release of 2002’s Attack of the Clones. While the LEGO aisles of stores are now dominated by sets based on blockbuster franchises like Jurassic World, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and, of course, Star Wars, tie-in themes based on existing intellectual properties didn’t seem like the sole solution to LEGO’s problems in the late Nineties. They required a different secret weapon to save them in the upcoming millennium. LEGO needed something with the world-building and lore of Star Wars, but it had to be an original property that they wholly owned and controlled.
That theme was Bionicle.
The development of LEGO’s 2001 breakout product was hardly instantaneous, however. It was a strange progress that wound through multiple other LEGO themes and went through many strange influences, including voodoo, sentient motorcycles, and pills.
The origins of Bionicle can be traced back to one man: Christian Faber. Faber was an artist and graphic designer who had been working at Advance, a Copenhagen marketing firm, since 1987. In 1989, his work with Advance led to a decades-long partnership with LEGO, beginning with promoting LEGO’s Pirates line. Christian then became the creative director for the Aquazone theme, where he designed the product line’s environment, packaging, and logos.
By 1995, Faber was working on concepts for LEGO’s Technic theme. Technic sets rely heavily on specialized pieces other than the standard LEGO System bricks, including rods, pins, beams, and gears. Since the inception of Technic in the late Seventies, these specialized pieces were almost exclusively used to create vehicles with complex parts. However, Faber had the idea to build something completely different than automobiles or airplanes, and it was all because of a diagnosis Faber had received early in his career at Advance. He had a tumor at the base of his brain, and while it was considered benign, he spent a decade taking medications to treat it, which had heavy side effects. “It was the strangest mix of feelings,” Faber explained in an article for Popular Mechanics. “I was happy at the job [working with LEGO], but faced the physical and mental strain of the medicine and the long-term illness.” 1 His condition caused him to think about the roles of different parts of the human body, and how they were not unlike different parts of a machine. He seemed fixated by the idea of a blurry place where living things and machinery met. Specifically, he imagined beings that were able to swap out different parts of their bodies. “I thought of this biological thing. The human body is built from small parts into a functional body just like a model. What if you got a box full of spare parts and built a living thing?” 1
Using Technic pieces and sculpting clay, Faber and his assistant, Jan Kjær, created prototypes for action figures with interchangeable LEGO components. They were the “Cybots”, robots (with what appears to be organic components) designed to travel deep beneath the surface of the Earth to mine energy crystals. In Faber’s Cybots pitch, he describes the titular machines as being able to operate “in the most extreme parts of the globe, earth, fire, water, and ice”, and in his blog, Faber Files, he mentions that “Some Cybots had malfunctioned and rebelled against their human inventors and had claimed the depths of the planet as their own.” 2 Beyond this, very little is known about the theme’s storyline.
LEGO rejected Cybots in the prototype stage, but they saw something in the concept of Technic buildable action figures with pieces that could be swapped in seemingly infinite combinations. A particularly notable feature of the Cybots prototypes was the ball joints at the ends of their limbs, which allowed them to snap into the body. “We needed something flexible and easy,” Faber noted in his blog, “and the closest solution was to look at nature: the ball joint.” This innovative piece type would go on to become a staple of all Bionicle figures’ designs.
A less obvious contribution that Cybots gave to Bionicle was briefly brought up in Faber’s pitch: “It will be possible to use [the] Cybot line as a test ground when it comes to new ways of communicating. Imagine a CD-ROM with Cybot games, 3-D building instructions, and visual inspiration for building and role-playing.” 2 Faber proposed that Cybots could be more than just a toy line: it could be a multimedia experience. It could have a world and characters that would be further fleshed out by having a presence in things kids wanted to do besides playing with toys. This approach would end up being part of what made Bionicle resonate with its target audience. Besides the toys, Bionicle had console games, flash games, comics, card games, animated shorts, and later even direct-to-video feature films. It was a bold strategy, but it unquestionably captured the imaginations of the 21st Century’s first children.
During the latter half of the Nineties, LEGO continued to play around with the idea of using the Technic system to build figures. They wanted something wholly revolutionary that would redefine what LEGO could be in multiple ways. The figures were to be generally affordable- something below $10 that children could buy with their own allowance. They’d not only be sold in toy isles and toy stores, but unconventional retailers like convenience stores and gas stations. 3 Also, each colorful figure would be part of a collectable set, a strategy that built off of a “gotta catch ‘em all” consumer mindset that would encourage people to buy more than one.
The team looked for inspiration in anime and manga, which were exploding in popularity in the United States. They grabbed what they could from Japan’s take on genre fiction, dynamic action, and above all, robots. This new line of products was going to actively defy the stereotypical view of LEGO. It had to be far removed from yellow, smiley-faced minifigures with their nostalgic rocket ships and castles. LEGO wanted something cool, edgy, and X-treme with a capital “X”.
In early 1999, nearly four years after Cybots had been rejected, LEGO released a subtheme of Technic called “Slizer”, except in North America, where the line had a much more self-explanatory name: “Throwbots”. The figures in the line incorporated the breakthrough ball joint connections originally proposed for Cybots. Each one had a collectable disc (inspired by Frito Lay’s “Tazo discs” that sought to ride the popularity of pogs) and a flexible arm that would toss the disc when you pulled it back and released it. There were various different patterns on discs, and the way they were randomly distributed with the sets was meant to encourage children to trade them.
While the sets themselves were the same worldwide, the Slizer (the plural of Slizer) and the Throwbots inhabited separate continuities. The Slizer are eight robots representing and named after different elements: City, Ice, Sub, (Underwater), Fire, Jungle, Rock, Energy, and the cryptically named “Judge”. Alternatively, the Throwbots are known as Turbo, Ski, Scuba, Torch, Amazon, Granite, Electro, and Jet. Both storylines were fairly vague and scattered across promotional materials and comics. The Slizer inhabit a planet made of the seven biomes they’re named after, with the Judge Slizer inhabiting the Slizer Dome at the top of the planet. They collect various natural resources from their respective environments, and are divided into two factions. The “good” side is made up of City, Ice, Sub, and Fire, who can combine to form the Super Slizer, while the “bad” side is made up of Energy, Rock, Jungle, and Judge, who can fuse into the Mega Slizer.
The Throwbots, however, are from various different worlds, and they unite as “guardians of the galaxy” to fight some kind of threat that’s not clearly defined. Slizer and Throwbots didn’t really have an emphasis on story, as was the case with most LEGO themes at the time.
In late 1999 and early 2000, four more Slizer/Throwbots sets were released: Millennium, Flare, Spark, and Blaster. Unlike the original eight figures, which were sold in reusable plastic containers, the second wave of Slizer/Throwbots came in standard cardboard boxes. Flare and Spark were the same size and price as the original eight figures, while Millennium and Blaster were special, larger-sized builds. Promotional materials suggest that their appearance was somehow tied to a meteorite, though like before, the story isn’t particularly defined.
The second wave of Slizer/Throwbots marked the theme’s unceremonious cancellation. This clearly wasn’t the product that saved LEGO, but it doesn’t necessarily seem like it was meant to be that in the first place. The line was the debut of LEGO Technic figures and several pieces that would become critical to Bionicle, but it came across as a testing ground or a stepping-stone to something bigger. The mechanical warriors based on elements, the collectables, the combination models, and the plastic canisters were all new, but they would ultimately be remembered as part of Bionicle, while the Slizer/Throwbots line quietly faded into obscurity.
In 2000, Slizer/Throwbots was immediately followed by another line of Technic figures: RoboRiders. The RoboRiders were robot/motorcycle hybrids, and the storyline for the theme was borderline nonexistent. A brief blurb from the theme’s website noted that the RoboRiders fought a “monster virus” that was “loose on the web” and took “six different forms”, implying that the setting of RoboRiders was possibly inside cyberspace. The product description from a LEGO catalog cryptically added that each RoboRider has “the brains of a human”.
RoboRiders launched with six main figures (Swamp, Lava, Frost, Onyx, Dust, and Power), as opposed to Slizer/Throwbots’ eight figures. This number is significant because it appears to be the beginning of a trend: every wave that Bionicle had in its initial run (from 2001 to 2010) was based around six central figures. This line also introduced cylindrical plastic canisters as reusable packaging, which would go on to be an iconic part of early Bionicle, and it continued its predecessor’s gimmick of each character being representative of different elements.
In addition to the main six RoboRider sets, there were four small promotional sets in the theme’s first wave: Volcano Climber, Dirt Bike, Ice Explorer, and Swamp Craft. These smaller “impulse buy” sets are comparable to Bionicle’s batches of smaller sets, such as the Turuga and the Bohrok Va.
Another aspect of Slizer/Throwbots that was continued in RoboRiders was the inclusion of collectable pieces. Rather than throwing disks, each RoboRider included two “Talisman Wheels” that had one of sixteen different robot designs on them. Like the discs before them, the wheels could be purchased separately from the main sets. A flexible piece in the front of each RoboRider was designed to launch the Talisman wheels, but this play function was unreliable. Additionally, RoboRiders continued to build upon Slizer/Throwbots’ concept of “combiner models”, introducing several designs that mashed the pieces of various figures together and used the lids of their canisters as gigantic wheels.
There wasn’t a second wave of RoboRiders, but rather a single larger set that came out later in 2000. Known simply as “The Boss”, the set could be built in two different modes, neither of which remotely resembled Bruce Springsteen. Depending on which set of instructions the builder chose to use, The Boss could either be a colossal, multi-wheeled vehicle with separating pods, or a motorcycle that could eject part of itself and turn into a jet. No explanation was given as to what The Boss was actually the boss of, leaving it up in the air whether he worked with the mysterious computer virus or led the RoboRiders in their digital battle.
For as many steps as RoboRiders took towards Bionicle, it made an odd step back. The ball joint pieces that had been introduced in Slizer/Throwbots were almost completely absent in RoboRiders, as they were only a part of one figure: Power. It doesn’t seem obvious to give robotic motorcycles limbs, but when you look at RoboRiders’ place in the “evolutionary line” of LEGO Technic figures, it is a bit unusual that a feature that prominent almost disappeared between one theme that heavily used it and another.
RoboRiders was not exactly a success (it didn’t sell as well as Slizer/Throwbots), but it wasn’t a colossal failure either. The story of RoboRiders was somehow even more of an afterthought than its predecessor’s, and the line’s slimmer range of products and limited time on the market suggested that it was experimental rather than something LEGO was putting all of their resources behind. Once again, it felt like LEGO was testing the waters of various play and design features for something grander that they were developing.
Christian Faber served as one of the key architects of both Slizer/Throwbots and RoboRiders, contributing heavily to the design of the characters and their environments. While these lines launched, he was busy working on another project. This third approach to LEGO Technic figures would combine the new way of building established by Slizer/Throwbots and RoboRiders with an elaborate storyline inspired by Faber’s illness. This plot would once again take place in an environment divided by elemental regions, but this time the environment would be an island.
Voodoo Island, to be precise.