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    A Parent's Guide to LEGO BIONICLEtm

    So there you are, being dragged down the toy aisle, when your child enthusiastically grabs a transparent canister that rattles.  A weird little mask peers out at you from the bottom of the tube.  "I really want this one, Mom!  It's Lewa, he's the Toa of Air, he's the coolest of anyone on Mata Nui!"  You could've sworn your child used to speak English?

    You've just been introduced to the world of LEGO BIONICLEtm.

    It's probably easiest to think of Bionicle as the latest fad toy and multimedia juggernaut, although it's actually much more.  You're almost certainly aware of LEGO bricks from your own childhood; funny little bright blocks that snap together and are limited only by your imagination.  Well, these aren't those.  LEGO has indeed come a long way.

    For the last several years, LEGO has been diversifying into multimedia and nontraditional entertainment.  In the mid-1990s, LEGO signed its first licensing agreement with Lucasfilm, maker of the immensely popular Star Wars movie and merchandising empire.  LEGO then produced wildly successful Star Wars-related LEGO sets, which continue to sell well to the present.  Recognizing the advantages of licensing, LEGO began signing deals like mad.  Today you can find Bob the Builder LEGO sets, Harry Potter sets, Steven Spielberg moviemaking sets, and even Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse sets.

    Licensing is not only expensive, it's limited to the terms of the license.  LEGO decided to create its own manufactured world and mythology, much like Pokemon or even Star Wars.  The result is LEGO BIONICLE, which is a story, a set of toys, a mythology, and a marketing dream come true.

    Those little canisters on the shelf contain LEGO pieces, to be sure.  They fit together to form action figures, creatures, remote-control sets, and whatever a child's imagination can conjure.  Along with these figures comes the story of Bionicle: Mata Nui, a tropical island paradise set in the time before time, is being threatened by the evil Makuta, brother of the sleeping spirit Mata Nui.  Six warrior spirits, the Toa, descend to protect the island and its villagers, the Turaga and Matoran, from the evils brought by Makuta.  Wild creatures bent on destruction, noble warriors, hardy villagers and wise village chiefs inhabit this fantastic island.  The Toa must find their masks of power before they may confront Makuta; once they defeat this terror, a new threat is unleashed, the Bohrok swarms.  These bug-like multitudes destroy anything in their path.  The islanders find and fashion weapons and armament to defend their island.  Thus are the many waves of toys marketed by LEGO, with various new sets released roughly every six months.

    The line is very popular with boys aged 8-12, and has a strong following of adult fans as well.  In fact, it was named the best Boy Toy of the year for 2001 and also the Most Innovative Toy for 2001, by the Toy Industry Association.  LEGO doesn't release exact sales numbers by line, but it is certain that Bionicle lifted 2001 sales well into the black.

    To better help you focus in on what you need to know about these toys, we present questions and answers that matter most to parents trying to learn more about this toy line.

    1. What exactly is Bionicle?
    2. What's the entry bar for getting into Bionicle?
    3. What's the price range?
    4. What's the minimum recommended age limit?
    5. Where can I find these toys?
    6. Is it violent? Do they use weapons?
    7. Does the story have decent family values?
    8. Will I be urged to buy a bunch of multimedia junk?
    9. Are there "collectibles" like Pokemon's "Gotta catch 'em all"?
    10. Will my child need to keep collecting more and more to feel they're getting the most out of this toy line?
    11. What sorts of things will my child learn from Bionicle?
    12. What's the difference between Bionicle and other LEGO building toys?
    13. Will these sets work with other LEGO sets?
    14. Will the popularity fade quickly, leaving me stuck with buckets full of useless bits of plastic?
    15. Is this a "cool" toy with my child's peers?
    1. What exactly is Bionicle?
      Bionicle is a set of LEGO construction toys that combine to form action figures and other creatures.  An elaborate mythology created by LEGO is available through various media, most of it free (except for the GameBoy Advance video games and Upper Deck trading card games).  The storyline is released through online games and free comics books, and mini-comics in McDonald's promotions and in the canisters themselves.  The myth continues to evolve with more adversaries and protagonists, incidentally coinciding with product release dates.

    2. What's the entry bar for getting into Bionicle?
      Surprisingly low.  Unlike most other multimedia brands, most children can start with just one or two of the main characters, the Toa.  The basic action figures are relatively inexpensive (compared with other LEGO sets, that is) and you do not need to buy every single Toa, Bohrok (bug-like adversaries), or Rahi (larger creature sets) to enjoy the storyline.  There is a collectible aspect, but its entry bar is also set relatively low (see #9 below).

    3. What's the price range?
      The six Toa (main characters) each retail for about US$8.  Other sets sell for as little as $2.99 (the tiny Turaga figures and Bohrok Va sets), or as much as $90 (for the remote-control "Mana" set; contains two Mana creatures that duel).  The main figures most children will want to start with are the Toa, and their main enemies, the Bohrok (also about US$8 each, 6 total).  Small targets of opportunity are the Turaga sets (if you can find them, they are becoming scarce in stores).  After those sets are purchased, there are several "Rahi" sets, or enemy creatures, which sell for between $15 (Nui-Jaga) and the $90 Manas.  Newly-released accessories include the Boxor (approx. US$15) and the Exo-Toa (approx. US$35).  A new opponent, Cahdok and Gahdok, are available for about US$60.

      There are also collectible plastic masks and rubber "power brains", known as Kanohi and Krana, respectively.  They come in small packs of 2 Kanohi for $2-3, or Krana packs with 2 gold or silver Kanohi and 3 Krana.

      Newer sets are generally full price, but clearance sales for older sets have been widely reported -- it is possible to find Rahi for up to half off, if you're lucky.

    4. What's the minimum recommended age limit?
      The Toa and Turaga minimum age is 7 years old, although they can easily be handled and constructed by come slightly younger children (although the ball joints may give some trouble -- adult help may be required).  The larger sets are generally for 8+ or more, due to their complexity and number of small pieces.

    5. Where can I find these toys?
      Most larger toy and retail stores will have the basic sets, including Toa, Bohrok, and Rahi available.  Try Toys R Us, Target, Wal*Mart, Zany Brainy, KB Toys, and stores of that nature for instant gratification.  The Bohrok Va in particular are difficult to find in these outlets, however; try pharmacy chains like Walgreen's for these little sets.

      LEGO Shop@Home web site also carries all the sets if you can't find them anywhere else, and will charge a nominal shipping fee.  The S@H site has been very good about keeping newer sets in stock lately.

    6. Is it violent?  Do they use weapons?
      There is a moderate level of cartoon violence in the built-in storyline.  The action is generally stylized, and the biomechanical nature of the toys themselves lend an unreality to the play, which help children separate associations of violence against people when the Toa attack Bohrok, or vice versa.  The figures are just humanoid enough for the child to identify with, but not realistic enough that the child will often become frightened for the toy's safety in a comic book or online game.

      The type of action practiced by the "good guys" is also nearly universally defensive in nature.  They do not attack unless provoked, and they have been portrayed as morally above reproach -- they exist solely to defend the island from "bad guys," creatures with infected masks or bug-like Bohrok swarms.

      Most characters do have a weapon.  Stylized bladed weapons are common for the heroes, although the newer Toa Nuva (replacements for the original Toa) have more intense weaponry; one has a chain saw, for example.  The weapons are rarely used as a physical method of contact in the storyline, however; most of the power of the Toa comes from their elemental powers: fire, water, earth, stone, air, ice.  Their weapons merely serve as conduits and to focus and discharge their powers.

    7. Does the story have decent family values?
      The answer to this would be subjective, of course.  Generally, however, parents who frequent or post on BZPower do not have a problem with the morals and attitudes displayed in the storyline.  Most of the underlying messages in the Bionicle universe are rooted firmly but do not overpower the play aspect: teamwork is more effective than going it alone; you stick with your friends, especially when the going gets tough; don't hurt something that isn't trying to hurt you; explore the unknown, but with caution; there is evil in the world, but the good guys always triumph, no matter the personal cost.

    8. Will I be urged to buy a set of multimedia junk?
      Probably, but not because it's built into the nature of the toy.  Of course children want it all, and want it all now.  Unlike other collectible-type toy lines, however, this one doesn't force the attitude that you must buy every related item in order to enjoy it fully.

      The entire purpose of the multimedia aspect of Bionicle is to further the storyline.  Most of it is done in a way that's easy for children to get without spending hard-earned birthday money.  The web site has several Bionicle games available to play for free, and has a ton of useful information about the story and characters and sets (go there next if you haven't already been there).  The Mata Nui Online Game (MNOLG) was released in "chapters" over most of 2001, and furthered the storyline by leaps and bounds.  A new game, the Battle for Mata Nui, is an adventure-type game (not yet released) that allows users to battle the Bohrok swarms in a game setting.  Comic books included with every LEGO Magazine bring the story along, and are sent to LEGO club members every couple of months or so.

      That said, there are a few multimedia products that are available.  There is currently one game for the GameBoy Advance platform, and several more are in development.  Additionally, there are not one but two movies in the works... the first is a direct-to-video/DVD project called BIONICLE: The Mask of Light.  The second is a just-announced theatrical release.  Both will be computer-animated.  There is a little bit of time before worrying about shelling out for popcorn and candy quite yet, fortunately: the DVD is not due until 2003, and the theatrical release until 2004.

    9. Are there "collectibles" like Pokemon's "Gotta catch 'em all"?
      Bionicle does have some collectible aspects, but it's purely secondary.  The masks, or Kanohi, come in several different shapes and colors.  Most are available in mask packs, which sell for US$2-3, the rest are either hard-to-find misprints for the professional collector, or came with promotional sets or Rahi.  There is also an active mask trading community online, principally through BZPower's "Buy/Sell/Trade" forum.

      Krana are also collectibles (8 types times 12 colors, 96 total), but have not proven as popular to collect as Kanohi.

    10. Will my child need to keep collecting more and more to feel they're getting the most out of this toy line?
      Probably not.  There are several inexpensive sets that can satisfy the basic hunger for collection, and more expensive sets can be set aside for birthday presents, etc.  The more they have the happier the child will likely be, but as with all LEGO sets, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  One is not locked into a toy that does one thing if it becomes boring... simply take it apart and create another different thing.

    11. What sorts of things will my child learn from Bionicle?
      At its heart, Bionicle is still a LEGO building toy, and you can expect many of the same advantages you remember from your youth with LEGO.  The building aspect of Bionicle helps to reinforce such skills as following instructions, problem solving, logical progressions and hand-eye coordination.

      Further, Bionicle's storyline provides a fertile universe where a child's imagination can run free; taking the inherent LEGO build-your-own-creation to a new level by giving them a world and a story where their original creations can exist.

    12. What's the difference between Bionicle and other LEGO building toys?
      Essentially, the addition of an original storyline.  By adding a mythology around the toys, LEGO has provided a built-in world for them to inhabit.  This helps provide the missing link that is inherent in other genre-based theme toys like Pokemon, Dragonball Z, etc., albeit in the "other direction"... toys that spawn a video game and movie, rather than the other way around.

      Fortunately, these are still LEGO construction elements and can be used with other LEGO Technic style pieces, even though they are quite specialized.  You will find a distinct shortage of regular LEGO "blocks" in the Bionicle line.

    13. Will these sets work with other LEGO sets?
      Yes, with many LEGO Technic pieces (see above).

    14. Will the popularity fade quickly, leaving me stuck with buckets full of useless bits of plastic?
      LEGO is LEGO is LEGO.  Pieces made in 1950 fit with pieces made today, so although the shapes are odd, they are still made to fit other pieces long after the intended sets are disassembled and forgotten.

      Also, the Bionicle line recently got a confidence boost by the joint announcement from LEGO and Miramax that they would release a theatrical movie in 2004.  That virtually ensures new products in the line will be produced and released through at least 2005.

    15. Is this a "cool" toy with my child?s peers?
      Depends on your child and the friends he considers "peers."  There's a definite cutoff point when Bionicle (and indeed anything LEGO) is no longer "cool."  That's an individual decision, but within the intended age group (8-12 year old boys), it is a very hot item indeed.

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