Last January, Lego promised that its 90th birthday would be unforgettable: the company agreed to revive one of its classic Lego themes (like Space, Castle and Pirates) with a new adult-quality Lego set.
But it turns out we’re not just getting a nostalgic bombshell today – the company decided to bring back the classic Space and the classic Castle at the same time. First up, Lego is unveiling the Galaxy Explorer, a $100 upgraded version of the iconic original Lego spaceship that will be up for pre-order today. And second, it announces the Lion Knights Castle, which – at $400 and 4,514 pieces – is by far the most complex and impressive castle game the company has ever produced.
I’ve been poring over the hi-res photos of each set below for days, marveling at the details and hidden gameplay features. But I didn’t have to do it myself: I was also able to talk to their lead designers Mike Psiaki (see also: Titanic, Saturn V, A007’s Aston Martin DB5) and Milan Madge (Space Shuttle Discovery, Pirates of Barracuda Bay, Central Perk). I even got to talk to Niels Milan Pedersen, a 44-year-old veteran who co-created Lego Pirates and Forestmen, worked on many classic space themes, and designed many of the most iconic forts, castles, and ships, including the Castle of the Black Knight, the Royal Knight’s Castle which I was lucky enough to own as a child and the legendary Black Seas Barracuda.
With the Galaxy Explorer, Psiaki says, the goal was to trigger nostalgia by building the ship you think you remember – not the one that actually existed. Most people have only ever seen pictures of the original 1979 set, and even the kids who held one are no longer kids. Here is what he told me:
We’ve noticed that adults generally remember the Lego kits from their childhood as being far more impressive and immersive than they really are – and our big bet we’re taking with this model, the assumption we’ve made is it is their size. So like when you’re a kid, you’re much smaller. Now you’re just physically taller and taking up a lot more space. Seeing that same set through the eyes of an adult, it doesn’t control your field of vision as much, essentially, does it?
How much bigger, though? When Psiaki realized he was 50% taller than his own seven-year-old son, that became the benchmark. The new 1,246-piece Galaxy Explorer is about 50% larger in all dimensions – “engines that are two modules, we’re making them three modules, the width of the wings is getting wider, the thickness of the plate” , and everything else the designers could do. stretch.
As you can see, the cell of the Galaxy Explorer has some the size to him now – in 1979 it was largely made of thin, flat gray plates. The new one is also 20.5 inches, or 52 centimeters long.
In the end, the Galaxy Explorer mostly became an upgraded version of the original, “so we’re almost imagining it as if we were looking at the Galaxy Explorer with a high-definition camera.” They kept it sharp and angular, with as few state-of-the-art arched parts as they could manage. I think it looks amazing, especially side by side with photos of the original.
But oddly, it wasn’t always going to be like that. “We initially went this route, okay, how do we modernize the Galaxy Explorer,” says Psiaki. “How would it actually work as a spaceship?” But that approach was scrapped after they found themselves building another Space Shuttle Discovery, and they also launched modernized designs for astronauts.
But the Psiaki team found a few places to modernize the set where it felt thematically appropriate. Some of the original printed Lego computer bricks are back – but as flat tiles now instead of angled monitors, making them look less like CRTs and allowing more of them to fit in the cockpit. Not only do you get the classic Lego space helmet, but a newer version with a thickened chin bar that’s less likely to break. “That was the joke in The Lego Moviewhere Benny has the helmet molded with the broken thing because that’s how everyone remembers that helmet,” Psiaki says.
And where the original only had a handful of fixed detachable columns to act as landing gear, you can flip the new set’s landing gear right into the frame. “I loved the vehicles where you can fold up the whole landing gear; I remember being really disappointed, like the first Lego Millennium Falcon that had the spacers just attached. Like, come on, these are supposed to bend! Please Lego let it work on an Ultimate Millennium Falcon where they actually do.
Not every part of the classic Galaxy Explorer made the cut: the original came with a landing pad – you can see a thematic nod in the image below, as well as what appears to be a pair of alternate versions, but it’s unclear if these are official parts of the set. And while the new cockpit fits four minifigs simultaneously, it doesn’t quite have the retro feel of the original’s flat-top pusher.
Unfortunately, I was unable to speak with the original designer of the Galaxy Explorer to ask him what he thought of the new version: Jens Nygaard Knudsen, who created Lego Space and designed the original Lego minifigure, died in 2020 at the age of 78. But his longtime collaborator Niels Milan Pedersen says he sees a lot of Jens’ personality shine through – and if you want to know more about Jens and Niels’ work on Lego Space, including the prototype sets, I strongly suggest this profile (pdf) by their colleague Mark Stafford.
When it comes to those early days of Lego Space, Pedersen recalls most were the guns – or lack thereof. At the time, designers had to pretend to add antennas to spacecraft: “We weren’t allowed to make anything that looked like weapons, even though Jens knew full well that children would use them as laser guns.” Pedersen ended up sculpting many iconic Lego pieces over the years, but his first was the space camera. “Most people call it the space bazooka. We have no right to call it that, that’s for sure! he said laughing.
The new Galaxy Explorer should be up for pre-order today on Lego.com for $99.99, £89.99 or €99.99, and should go on sale August 1. I will buy one.