Robots are cool. Legos are cool. Tribal peoples are cool. Combined, we get weird stick men with masks and weapons that can be combined to make... er... what is that?
The Danish toy company known as Lego had been a juggernaut for years, but in 1998, they found themselves beginning to have some downturn. Sales on their traditional toys had gone down, jobs were lost, and they were willing to try out some alternatives. Many of the traditionalists rejected the idea, following the values of education and creativity over making something violent that would sell. In the end, the traditional values were taken to a traditional values farm and released into a field to live out the rest of their days Timmy. Old Yeller the Ethics Board is just fine in ethics board heaven.
So, the not so radical idea proposed in the post-Pokemon era? Collectible robots combined with a multi-tier media blitz.
The idea of collectible robot made by Lego is awesome, partially because Lego is awesome. As a company, their mission statements revolve around education, creativity, and free play- in other words, give the kids some flexible tools and lo and behold, they create their own fun. Lego's let you build just about anything, so a robotic Lego should be pretty damn amazing, right? Well, they actually DO make some real robots, which are pretty amazing. But those are MINDSTORMS.
As for Bionicles.. it's too bad they decided to build these robots using new parts and their Technic line instead.
Bionicle is a word combining Bionic and Chronicle- a shame, as this would've been the perfect name for the first cybernetic testicle: it will now have to settle for Roboscrotum. It's a poor naming choice as there seems to be more pure robot than organic-machine men throughout the series, but I digress.
Adopting some of the old Technic line for parts, and making a lot of new ones, the Bionicle line was birthed. The Technic line was supposed to be advanced Lego blocks- this meant they were:
This meant there were probably a whole bunch of Technic parts lying around, and a genius somewhere decided to make use of a flagging line by alchemically turning it into a successful one. This guaranteed that the toys themselves would be crap.
Bionicle's are a fusion of the worst elements of action figures and building blocks. The robots toys themselves are basically just a collection of snap on ball joints- remember how some action figures had arms you can pop off and swap around? It's about the same thing, the difference being that real action figures look like something more than a darkly colored stick man with ball joints and a mask. So, despite making Stretch Armstrong look handsome, they at least have the flexibility of building blocks right? Wrong.
In the average Bionicle figure set, you get a pair of masks, a five ball joint torso, two arms, two legs, and maybe some armor or weapons or other jazz. It doesn't matter, because the best you can do to customize these figures is to snap it's arms where it's legs are, creating deformed freaks with heads where their asses go. You can also shift around where a given mask or armor chunk goes, but this is the creative equivalent of directing a monkey where to fling poo on your walls.
In basic, a Bionicle figure is a worse version of almost any toy you can find- it's a Transformer that can't really transform, a Lego set that can't be built into anything, or an action figure that looks like someone forgot to finish building in the factory. Wrapping it up is that the frame is identical from figure to figure minus accessories, and you have a line of product that is easy to mass manufacture, call collectible, and reap in the profits from an imagination stunted youth you've helped to create.
But despite making stick men robots, the Bionicle line succeeded- probably due to the massive advertising campaign these things got. In a multi-tier, multi-platform blitz, the Bionicle's have everything including:
So, you can have Bionicle everything, saturating one's life with identical, mask wearing stick men (thankfully, they never made the Bionicle fruit snacks, so no eating and excreting it). Still, this isn't like troll dolls or wacky wall crawlers- this crap has a story to it, a story combining the impenetrable nonsense of Pokemon with the shallow plot of a Michael Bay film. Top it all off with offending the tribal people these toys try (and fail) to emulate, and you have all the elements for an intellectual property that will take the world by storm...
Uh, I was talking about Bionicle, wasn't I?
The story of Bionicle is that of the Toa, amnesiac robots with elemental powers that wake up on an island, blunder around it, and eventually fight some bad guys- being amnesiacs, they really don't know WHY these bad guys are evil, just that they have to fight them off.
This continues on, with the shadowy bad guy unleashing new monsters over the years, finding a few new allies with new powers, and questing to find masks and their lost god, who happens to be a giant robot. Without filling your brain with more non-sense words than they can handle (Rahkshi, Borohk, Glatorian, Metru Nui... I could go on for an entire paragraph of this crap) it's best I just hit the highlights of the story:
Throughout the story, the Toa warriors chase down Kanohi masks- being amnesiacs, we don't know why there are here, but they grant the Toa crazy powers. Much like the crazed antics of the Trix Rabbit, the Toa want these masks bad, bad enough to risk lava, scorpions, and ridiculous odds just to get their hands on these wonderful collectible items!
This unit is used over and over again in the story- the first part of the story, which is basically just blundering around an island, takes a thousand years. A thousand years in which basically nothing happens. Why the millenial unit? Do these robots actually move so slow that it takes hours for them to take a single step, or is the island continent sized? It doesn't matter, as basically each year equals a thousand, making it more... epic? Maybe the numbers ten, one hundred, and one thousand were run through testing groups and found thousand the most popular with six to sixteen year olds.
The terms Toa, Kanohi, and others are words from the Maori language, which the Bionicle borrowed from liberally. This is Maori warrior- note that he is not a robot, a stick man, or wearing a mask.
"Wait, those are supposed to be us!?!"- I'd be pissed too.
When the modern day Maori saw this, they took legal action and actually sued Lego. While Lego discontinued the use of some words, they still make use of Toa and Kanohi, and basically done their best to ignore the incident and hope nobody remembers.
Toys don't have to teach kids anything- Ninja Turtles only really taught me to crave pizza at all times and that ninjas were cool. Still, if something is going to be taught, it better be good, right? The three virtues followed by these Momento robots are Unity, Duty, and Destiny. In the plot, this is basically how they shake out:
In other words, beyond a vague notion of teamwork, the Bionicles sort of follow the virtues of 'do what your told'. There's nothing around to give them Duties, and Destiny isn't a virtue- Destiny happens whether you want it to or not. Maybe they mean accepting one's destiny or embracing that you are destined for great things? If I were a kid, I think I would learn that if one were to awake with no memories on an island with a mask and weapons where everything is trying to kill me, that whatever Destiny had planned for me was obviously not something I wanted. These principles are so generic that they are probably harmless, though I think Bionicles were not the first to follow these three virtues though.
"United in faith, united in battle, united in duty!" is one of many slogans used by the Reichspropagandaleitung (AKA the Nazi Propaganda mill). Calling something nazi is the sucker punch of the internet though, and the translation isn't exact, so I'll move on to some horrifying story elements.
At one point in the story, lazy or damaged workers would be sent to a hellish realm where they were shown horrifying alternate futures before being fixed- that's right, robot re-education camps. While this character later becomes a bad guy when he stops sending the robots back from the camps, keeping them as prisoners instead, the re-education itself was considered justice for their society. Never mind harmless, showing kids this could create tomorrow's despot, though on the bright side, if they like Bionicles they aren't likely to be an evil genius so much.
It's all pretty damning, but luckily, there is some good news- it's over.
Bionicle, officially, is ended- but that's probably just because the story is garbage and superhero properties are big. There is now an entire decade of human being's irreparably filled with bits of distorted Maori language, toxic virtues, stunted creativity, and crappy taste in art. However, the new line is called Hero Factory- with 10 years passed, and developing toys for Ben 10 and other cartoon properties, learning from past mistakes, there's a good chance that the new toys will be better, the technology and look developed...
Or be the same damn thing with a new name, and the addition of big guns. So much for avoiding violence and warfare Lego. I guess now I'll have to do a Hero Factory article when it's all said and done...
See you in ten years folks.