LEGO has released some unexpected and outlandish themes over the years, and Exo-Force is certainly a standout in both regards.
As the late ‘90s gave way to the early ‘00s legendary toy manufacturer LEGO found themselves in financial trouble. While they had seen great success in the past with their interlocking bricks, the amount of different bricks being produced, and the type of sets being sold were losing them money left and right. They were nearly a billion dollars in debt, and their only saving grace was the introduction of sets themed around already beloved franchises such as Star Wars and Harry Potter. In 2004 the company brought on Jorgen Vig Knudstorp as CEO. Knudstorp demanded that LEGO drastically cut back the number of unique pieces being made and that they get rid of their traditional architecture designers in favor of talented LEGO fans.
The turn around worked. LEGO slowly began to crawl out of the hole it had dug over the past decade. As it did, the big wigs at LEGO were determined to focus on two things — more collaborations with big name franchises, and original themes that catered to the current audience of kids and adult fans of LEGO (AFoL). During this rebuilding phase someone at LEGO must have noticed the global uptick in interest for books, shows, and movies coming out of Japan. The mainstream anime fanbase had been slowly growing since the introduction of popular shows like Dragon Ball Z, Pokémon, and Yu-Gi-Oh. In 2003 Shonen Jump had launched a monthly manga magazine in the United States to modest success, hooking readers on long running hits such as One Piece and Naruto. The stage was set.
LEGO wanted to get on the Japan hype train, but they needed a killer new theme to do so. Instead of trying to buy the rights to any of the popular media that was currently burning up the Japanese charts they decided they would produce their own anime-inspired adventures.
And thus Exo-Force was born.
Launched in 2006, Exo-Force was focused on the struggle between a squad of “battle machine” pilots and an army of mechanical menaces under the command of the devious robot leader Mecha One. The two sides battled for supremacy on the terribly-named Sentai Mountain. Each human character bore a common Japanese name (Hikaru, Takeshi, Ryo, etc.) and was given their own emotional illustration to match.
The Exo-Force backstory and characters certainly borrowed quite a bit of inspiration from anime mainstays such as Mobile Suit Gundam Wing and Neon Genesis Evangelion. In fact, Exo-Force as whole seemed to focus on a lot of stereotypical anime visuals and story elements. Not exactly a bad thing when you’re trying to grab the mainstream audience, but it didn’t really help the series stick out in a sea of spiky hair and large eyes.
The first wave of sets featured battle mechs from both sides of the robot conflict, as well as a handful of important locations and smaller vehicles. Each set was littered with basic Japanese writing and a focus on weaponry that builders could actually fire.
Some of them were pretty dang cool.
Exo-Force sold well enough in its first year to be green-lit for a second and third wave of toys. These wild new sets came bundled with expanded information on the human heroes, their powerful battle mechs, and their ultimate goal to find the legendary “Golden City.” This time the Exo-Force was headed deep into the jungle.
After three years of mechs and mayhem, Exo-Force was suddenly put out of commission. They had yet to beat their robot enemies into submission, but the story would have to remain on hiatus indefinitely. In an official announcement about the series LEGO Community Development Manager Jan Beyer stated:
“Regarding the low sales of the Exo-Force line, the decision was made to stop the line at the end of 2008. The sales were good in 2006 but in 2007 the sales did not meet the expectations and the expectation was that even an expensive marketing campaign could not get the sales to the expected level.”
The current LEGO fanbase seems to be split on whether Exo-Force was one of the best original themes to come from the decades-old toy company, or one of the worst. Younger builders seemed to find a lot to love in the sets’ flashy weapons and snarling mini-figures, whereas older fans tended to look past the sets to the uninspired source material lurking in the background. Many compared the Exo-Force mechs to the popular Bionicle sets of the time and felt they just didn’t have the same lasting appeal.
For better or for worse, Exo-Force happened. It certainly helped pave the way for LEGO themes like Ninjago and Chima down the line, but we haven’t seen anything quite like it in the last ten years, and chances are we may never again.