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The Evolution of LEGO Games

VOICE OVER: Josh McLean WRITTEN BY: Josh McLean
Welcome to MojoPlays! Today we're breaking down the evolution of every single Lego game by "era". Three separate categories that define the approach behind a game's design philosophy, and its contributions to the following generation of gamers. Come along as we examine the turning points in this series of 90+ games that span some 25 years! We'll cover everything from the classic era of the mid 90s all the way up to the modern Lego games that began in 2012.
Transcript
Script written by Josh McLean

The Evolution of LEGO Games


Classical Era


Welcome to the Classical Era of Lego video games. Taking place approximately through the years of 1995 to early 2005. Here we see loosely Lego themed adventures, that are often disjointed from the previous and following titles, and owning by far the most experimental design approach. Early Lego took a swing at simulators, learning games, sports centric titles, real-time strategy, and even poorly aged chess!

The “classics” are notable for keeping their gameplay focus primarily on Lego's hallmark theme of “building”. If you’re racing, you best bet you'll be piecing the car together. If you’re puzzle solving, the path to victory will be laid with studs. Of course elements of these mechanics exist to this day, but as we’ll discuss in a little, a shift of focus was necessary to remain on top!

Entries in this era, while simple in design, were the birthplace of their sassy and occasionally adult-leaning humour - another key ingredient that would carry through to almost all games thereafter. Unfortunately, the quality of the Classical era ranged wildly between titles. If you were looking for a Lego game to pick up, I can only pray you ended up with something like “Legoland” or “Xtreme stunts” and not… “Alpha Team”.. Ewww.

These early titles obviously suffered from their limited technology, namely, low resolution, long loading times, and characters speaking only in grunts (with some exceptions, Lego Island). This is worth mentioning only to compare how far they’ve come in recent years! More on that in a minute. However, we can't deny these factors add a unique retro childlike charm that later games are missing, like indie music or low budget films. Many of the games in this era have been lost to time in the eyes of the public, with the exception of “Lego Island”, whose wackiness and relative freedom made this nonlinear first-person adventure better than it had any right to be!

Renaissance Era


2005 to 2012. Although the shortest, this era was a transitional period that defines what most people think of in terms of a standard Lego game. Most importantly, we see the introduction and rise to success of licensed, branded story-driven adventures. During this time, we have moved away from the concept of "building" every asset in the game and established a straightforward streamlined gameplay experience with reliable quality. Even throw away titles became highly polished hour-sinkers to fill time in between major licensed releases.

If you were a parent looking to buy any Lego-themed video game off the shelf in the renaissance, there was an almost guaranteed shot at success. Whether your kid is a fan of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, or Batman, they're going to have a game with high replayability and loads bang for your buck. Many of the bestsellers, including the second, fourth and fifth most successful of the series can be found during this time, and set the standard to meet for future games.

The stories themselves found in-game are entirely accurate one-to-one depictions of the movies, with occasional throw away gags. A great way to introduce youngins to major motion pictures through a tamer lens. (e.g. the face melting scene in Indiana Jones). The focus has now shifted from yellow Lego people to well-known, marketable characters. Rosters are still impressive for the time, mainly in the Star Wars installments, but the range of gameplay is quite samey no matter which title or character you are playing. The latter end of this era was back loaded with attempts at games in mobile series. Trying to find a place to introduce original Lego IPs again, like that of the Classical era approach... Though, does anyone remember "Lego Life of George"? Genuinely curious.

Modern Era


And so we arrive at the present day! It may surprise you that I choose to define this time period between 2012, all the way to 2020. “Lego City Undercover'' was just too much of a departure from the Renaissance formula, that they have continued to build off of to reach the level of Lego gaming we’re used to nowadays. Here we see a sort of safe return to experimentation (Builders Journey). Plus a greater focus on open worlds, more diverse and unique characters, while utilizing the enhanced visuals afforded by modern technology. It’s worth noting this strive for longer and longer game lengths have turned away some players who are accustomed to the snaippiness of the Renaissance titles.

The years included here house by far the greatest chunk of recognizable IPs all released alongside each other. Back to back we have: “Jurassic World”, “Dimensions” (which did the impossible including Sonic, Scooby Doo, Adventure time, Simpsons, etc), “Marvel”, “Star Wars”, and “Harry Potter”. There isn’t a company on or off this Earth that could release that much content with that amount of mass crowd appeal. If you want to play a Lego game in the Modern era, I assure you one of them will suit your interests.

During this time there is a heavier focus on sequels and the re-innovation of what already works. Sure they went “Beyond Gotham” with Lego Batman 3, but that wasn’t the finish line, oh no! “Lego DC Super-Villains” remixed and re-spun what they were trying to achieve just four years earlier, bumping up the roster another 70 characters from the already 200. Even allowing you in a series first to customize the storyline with your own custom player character.

The use of voice acting in these modern games is a welcome inclusion to tell grander stories, although, the brand centric installations typically use ripped dialogue from their movie counterparts which, while time saving, does give off a cheaper sound. Lego gave another shot at a “building”-centric game again, to mixed reviews. As the proof is in the pudding. “Lego Marvel Heroes” is the best selling Lego game thus far, due to its massively connected character universe, action-themed gameplay, along with the advantages of newer tech in the Modern Era.

Outro


Ultimately, Lego has remained successful by adapting! Why was the shift in focus necessary during the renaissance period? Well it’s safe to assume outlets like Minecraft and Roblox, or even physical Lego bricks themselves, already meet people's desires to build. So the premise these games originally operated off of had to shift into an adventure character-driven experience. Compare this concept to the Classic era once again, where instead of heroes like Batman, you had names like Pepper-Roni as your flagship lead. This consistent innovation was for the better, might I add, looking at where Lego Island 2 was going. Although, I would be curious to see a timeline where they leaned into the collecting and building gameplay hook. Potentially reaching a title like "Lego Worlds" far sooner.

Thanks to the hard work of the devs, a Lego title is always a treat to be seen when released. I can only assume the next wave of Lego titles will continue the trend, branching into the latest massive brands while maintaining their consistent quality. Hopefully, the Traveller’s Tales team and its associates can iron out the quirks of the modern titles, while keeping the spirit of what came before. It’s a good time to be a Lego gaming fan.
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