Thirty years ago this year, the LEGO Group sailed into uncharted waters. An all-new product line captivated children around the world when LEGO Pirates arrived on shelves. Changing the face of the minifigure for the first time, introducing new animal elements and bringing plenty of adventure to the building experience, it changed things up for LEGO fans.
In 1989, the year that the theme launched, children were mesmerised by the new LEGO Pirates boxes on store shelves. Beautiful artwork with carefully orchestrated scenes was appealing, but what was even more exciting was that when the flap was lifted on sets like 6285 Black Seas Barracuda and 6276 Eldorado Fortress, a window showed off some of the box’s most appealing contents.
Those two large sets were part of what made it such a wonderful time to be a child indulging their LEGO love. Black Seas Barracuda was a pirate ship of legend, with a sizeable cabin for Captain Redbeard, cannons stored below deck and masts towering over the bow. It was a long, rewarding model to build – but once complete, it had endless play potential.
Today, when the LEGO design team conceives of a new action-adventure theme, a key aspect is the storyline, that must feature a tussle for a McGuffin. In a range like NINJAGO, the heroes are fighting the evil skeletons to acquire the elemental weapons. This was also true 30 years ago in LEGO Pirates – the pirates were seeking treasure, with the soldiers attempting to protect it. Shiny gold pieces were introduced to represent the loot.
6276 Eldorado Fortress, while not as iconic in the world of pirates as a ship, is still a LEGO set of legend. Thanks to it being such a large model and packed with rooms, it stimulated the imagination and had the potential for epic battles between the soldiers and their outlaw enemies.
Beyond those large sets though, there were some fantastic small models that would be very quick to put together allowing children to get right into the action of role-playing. Rafts, rowboats, and shipwreck islands all built up a vast, dangerous world that these characters existed within.
The new minifigures had more than the traditional smiley face for the first time, with beards, moustaches and eye patches making them stand out. They were key to making this a range of LEGO sets that demanded more than just building, but role-play as well.
Cutlasses, pistols, working compasses, parrots and treasure chests were just a few of the new pieces that helped the pirates and soldier minifigures feel like more than blocky little decorations for the models. They felt like part of an authentic world.
LEGO Pirates came along at a golden time for the company, with Space and Castle already well established. It was this theme though that perfected the formula of what a LEGO range should be, launching with the perfect balance of products to appeal to any child’s sense of adventure.
Graham Hancock is a toy collector and deputy editor of Blocks magazine.
Explore classic toys and games that captured our attention and never let go.