When Lego Island launched in 1997, the game was a rarity: a fun tie-in designed to replicate the exact look and feel of Lego bricks. You could run through a 3D world and encounter a shark that looked exactly like a Lego toy shark. In one of the racing tracks, there was an octopus with the same dangly limbs as in the Lego Aquanauts toy set. It was a marvel, and one that enraptured an entire generation of ’90s kids.
Two decades on, Lego games are as common as open world adventures. Every six months to a year, there’s a brand new Lego game including tie-ins like Avengers, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars and The Incredibles. This week, there’s even a gorgeous-looking Lego Builder’s Journey puzzle game. But all these shiny sequels owe a lot to Lego Island and its weird little world.
Lego Island wasn’t the first Lego video game adaptation (that honour goes to Lego Fun to Build for the Sega Pico), but it was the first major title released outside of Japan. It was also the first building a lore and story around Lego bricks.
In Lego Island, you played as one of many characters (Laura/Nick Brick, Pepper Roni, Mama/Papa Brickolini) as they attempted to catch an evil villain known as The Brickster. In between wild escapes and pizza thefts, you could drift around the island on a jet ski, go on races in the underground or deliver pizzas to local customers.
But the real fun of Lego Island was wandering around a gorgeous island and uncovering various easter eggs. In the police station there was various objects that would devolve and break down into Lego bricks when clicked. If you waited long enough on the streets, certain characters would wander onto the path to make cameo appearances. You could also spot iconic video game character toys like dogs and birds as you chilled.
The technology of the time meant Lego Island’s world was sparse, largely filled with single-colour textures. But for a child, it was still a world that sparked imagination.
The late ’90s was a time of great experimentation in the PC games, and Lego Island benefited from this looseness. As computers became more common in households and schools, the ‘games for kids’ market exploded. Simple adventure titles like Lego Island gained unprecedented popularity. But it also gave kids a sense of freedom, creativity and adventure, and tied in everything great about the Lego toys.
What started as a fun little game designed to help kids explore and problem solve became something more as gaming became more popular. Lego Island got a sequel in the form of The Brickster’s Revenge (equally fun, but lacking the novelty of the first game). This also got a sequel, and was then followed by several spin-offs. There was chess spin-offs, racing spin-offs, Bionicle, and my personal favourite: Lego Rock Raiders.
But Lego wasn’t satisfied with just spinning off its own brick-filled world. Instead, it dived into licensed properties in the ’00s — starting with the very unlikely crossover Lego Creator: Harry Potter in 2001. This game was more of a sandbox where players could muck around in a magic-themed world, but it kickstarted a licensed Lego revolution. The success of the Harry Potter spin-off led to major Lego entries for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman and even more Harry Potter nearly a decade later.
From 2014-2018, the Lego franchise was averaging three new games a year. In 2021, we’ve not only got Builder’s Journey to look forward to, we also have the looming promise of Skywalker Saga, the Star Wars spin-off set to retell the entire nine-movie franchise.
The Lego video games of today are grand and polished affairs. They’re big budget, themed hits with devoted fans of all ages. But without Lego Island, none of this success would have been possible.
Revisit the game in 2021 and you’ll see where much of the visual and written comedy of the Lego games comes from. Even the basic mechanics of modern Lego games can be traced back to Lego Island and its strange cast of characters. While the first person view mechanics were eventually done away with, the entire structure of the original Lego Island found its way into later hits like Lego Harry Potter and Lego Star Wars.
Today, Lego games are wildly popular and available on nearly every console, in every language. The company has become a powerhouse in the industry, and continues to make a major impact with every release. But it all started with Lego Island. The Infomaniac would be proud of how far the games have come.
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