LEGO vs. Mega – An Analysis – Part 3

It’s been a while since I worked on this article series, but luckily we’re not in a rush, anyway. Or are we? Either way, in the previous article of this series I presented you with an overview of Mega‘s parts – the mundane, the special and the not so cool ones. Naturally there are even more sides to the story, so let’s continue our exploration and discuss some more details. I would suggest you revisit the other article and look at the photos again since I’m not going to include most of them again here.

Quality Parts?!

Of course the whole starting point of many arguments on LEGO vs. its competitors is the quality. Typically people will cite things like lack of manufacturing precision and thus parts falling off due to weak clutch power/ adhesion or elements being warped or malformed as the main reason why they stick with the “original” (quotation marks used intentionally, but I’ll spare you a discussion of who invented what and the legalese around it).

While it would be wrong to dismiss this argument entirely, it doesn’t exactly hold water anymore, either. Most of those opinions go back to a time when competitors were just getting started and didn’t have a handle on quality management, often simply due to their lack of experience or limited technical resources. In particular in the last five years this is changed drastically. With computerized design and manufacturing having become commonplace even for cheap China-knockoffs, in particular the mold-making process has gained a level of precision and finesse that is attainable at relatively low cost and allows to replicate exact results every time. This has brought parts tolerances and acceptable deviations from the norm within such small margins that you almost wouldn’t see a difference. If the parts wouldn’t carry the vendor label or didn’t have another coloration, you’d be unable to distinguish them at times.

The devil’s in the details, though, and so there are some things that may not turn out as favorably as one might think. On the most general level one of the things I can’t get behind with Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx is the variance in how “tight” some parts feel – or not. I have hinted at this in the previous article for some pieces where it’s seriously problematic, but other, less critical items are affected by it as well. Most notably one unit wide plates, regardless of their actual length, tend to be very tough to even get onto the opposing studs and even more complicated to get off. This can go as far as those bits appearing like being glued together and even not coming off with a (LEGO) brick separator. Other pieces on the other hand often feel slightly too loose such as straight slope bricks. There’s clearly room for improvement even if you give credit to the fact that most of those collectible models will only be built once and then never be touched again.

The point here is of course that this affects the gap measurements and as a brick builder you always want those to be as regular as can be if not becoming entirely indiscernible. Those efforts can be thoroughly thwarted if an element can’t be fully pushed down on a stud or subsequent elements exert forces that can move pieces connected to them in such a fashion that the gaps become larger or steps appear between elements that should be level with one another.

Damaged Reputation?

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Basic Elements, Bricks

There are some inherent limitations of any injection molding process and one of those is that the material needs to come from somewhere. As a result you will find injection marks on pretty much any item made from plastic, including LEGO‘s and others’ bricks. The real trick is of course where to place them and to keep them as unnoticeable as possible, so they don’t interfere with the actual building process or spoil the appearance. Without boring you to death with technical details, one of the key requirements is also that those parts need to come of their sprues easily in an automated fashion or else it would be impossible to mass-produce them if someone had to manually clip them and clean up the seams, so it’s also beneficial if those injection points are small/ thin and in places where a slight shear or push breaks the part from the sprue.

Apparently Mega have a few different ideas in that regard than LEGO has, so there are noticeable differences. One of the most obvious is what I call “the evil stud”, i.e. the stud that is used as the influx point for the material. Here LEGO relies on their longtime experience and quality control and keeps everything plain and flat, hoping that no remnants stand out. amazingly this seems to work just fine. Mega on the other hand seem a little less confident and quite literally allow themselves an extra safety margin by having and accentuated ring at the edges of those specific studs in order to assure they stay pristine and sharp. While it’s a valid approach, it has the disadvantage of being more visible, especially with some colors, occasionally necessitating that extra bit of attention how to orient your pieces to minimize exposure of those artifacts.

A similar annoyance are the very prominent “Mega Bloks” stamps you can still find on many parts whose molds haven’t been refurbished to reflect the transition from Mega Bloks to Mega Construx. Those marks are placed between the studs and again depending on the actual part design and its color can stand out a lot and be very, very distracting and hard to obfuscate or hide. On the bright side, though, newer molds use the same approach like LEGO where the vendor branding is placed on the stud in small type, so there’s hope that in the long run as Mega replace and rejuvenate aging molds this issue will resolve itself.

Unfortunately with Mega sink holes are a very common occurrence. Thermal shrinkage is an unavoidable sideeffect of all plastic molding and once more the trick is to make it happen evenly by controlling the temperature of your mold, the temperature of the injected material, the pressure and many other factors, including slightly oversizing your mold in the first place to compensate. Somewhere in this complex set of conditions more often than not Mega seem to run into issues with craters forming around the injection points or those dreaded wavy patterns appearing on parts that should be perfectly smooth and flat. How much it will bother you again depends heavily on the color of a part, its curvature and how exposed it will be on the final model.

Something I personally find simply unacceptable are the various genuine quality issues you experience with some Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx sets. When I read such reports they always seemed like a bad memory from older days, but once I ran into some of those myself, some of my fears were realized. I can’t quite fathom how an actual damaged or deformed part can even make it into the package. Clearly in the day and age of automated highspeed cameras being able to check hundreds of items per minute and electronic scales being able to weigh differences in micrograms it should be nearly impossible for an underweight twisted part to slip through QC.

What makes this even worse is that due to the nature of how those sets find their way to Germany I’m not in a position to get replacements easily or not at all even if I was willing to shell out the dosh for a second set to cannibalize. Lately I’ve been in touch with LEGO‘s service to get replacements and missing parts way too often for my taste, but at least I can do that here. Don’t get me wrong: I’m willing to assume that Mega‘s service would be just as helpful, but it’s just not an option. Regardless, my thinking still is that some parts never should even make it to the packaging stage. It just feels wrong that they leave the factory at all.

The Proof’s in the Brick

To illustrate some of the points, I’ve run a little experiment and assembled the lower part of the front section from Mega Blok‘s Halo Phaeton Gunship (CNG67) in its original form and then rebuilt it with LEGO parts as far as possible. Aside from some pieces simply not existing in both universes, some additional thought had to be spent on some specific changes and adaptations to later join the sub-assembly from the different systems and accommodate for different building styles.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx vs. LEGO, Comparative Build, Top

The first picture shows the two items side by side and makes it immediately apparent that right off the bat Mega models tend to look a bit more noisy/ busy/ messy. Even if large sections are faired over with smooth tiles or later disappear inside invisible areas of the model, you often wonder how it will turn out during the build process. A good chunk of this can indeed be attributed to those very prominent marks and injection scars that I mentioned earlier. In the chosen example the effect is amplified by the metallic colors as well, since these types of materials tend to show flow patterns and uneven distribution of the metallic pigments even under ideal conditions – it’s an inherent limitation of the whole process.

The gap measurements on the other hand look pretty similar on both sets and basically even out one another. Where one particular element may leave more open space, the other tends to compensate and which element from which vendor is affected by these variations is equally balancing out. Sometimes LEGO does a better job, sometimes the Mega parts will fit better. From experience after having built a number of sets from both worlds I tend to think however, that LEGO still does a slightly better job at certain standard parts like small 2 x 1 plates and such, the point here being about a consistent feel and predictability how pieces will snap together. Larger and more unique parts appear to be less misbehaving, likely due to smaller numbers allowing a more strict focus on quality and the higher per-piece-cost reinforcing it.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx vs. LEGO, Comparative Build, Bottom

The undersides show a similar picture. You can observe some differences between the manufacturers, but you can’t pin it on specific aspects of the quality. The only thing that stands out are some edges on the Mega model that appear less sharp and even a bit rounded. Still, I would argue that if I would be more thorough when building my models and making sure that bricks are pressed together and are aligned correctly it would look even better. Also notice how the different curvature of the large slope/ wedge pieces affects the overall perception.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx vs. LEGO, Comparative Build, With LEGO Parts Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx vs. LEGO, Comparative Build, Native Mega Parts

On first glance those differences may appear like a non-issue, but once you continue your assembly and plug on other sections, the crux of it is exposed. On the version with the LEGO parts the slope falloff is a bit too immediate and steep due to the piece itself being longer and requiring a different radius for a “nice” look. As a result, there is a visible gap with increasing spread the farther away you get from the innermost edges. I’m pretty sure, though, that if you spent some more thought on this and would re-engineer the whole layout with other parts instead of just my meagre attempt of staying as close to the original way of building as possible, this could be improved considerably.

In fact when building this stuff I was a victim of my own ignorance for quite a while and this looked a lot worse until at some point I realised that on the Mega version some studs were being used in a way that simply is impossible with LEGO. One example for this is the hollow stud at the rear of the transparent orange “engine” section, into which one of those pin-like intermediate spacers you find on one unit wide plates goes. for the LEGO version I had to forego this extra bit of connection and just faired over the relevant spaces with smooth tiles instead of studded plates (see first image).

Conclusion

As far as I’m concerned, the alleged quality issues with third-party manufacturers like in this case Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx either do not exist at all or are at best minor. To me it feels like a bad reputation from the past simply won’t go away and despite many of those things no longer being true, there is a certain kind of people who still like to pull them out every now and then to disparage and deter people from trying something different. Regardless, not everything is perfect, of course, and it would be foolish to deny that some issues still exist and persist.

For many people outside the US or Canada the biggest hurdle will be to get replacements for missing or damaged parts in case this situation arises. This sure can ruin all the fun and therefore is the number one concern on my own imaginary list – right next to the highly dysfunctional or near non-existing global distribution system of Mega. The people who get to enjoy their sets may still be left hanging in mid-air one way or the other.

Another thing that can spoil the fun, for some at least, is the fact that you can’t completely re-create models from one system within the other. That is – without larger efforts on actually changing things around, at least. So just downloading a digital building instruction from Mega Construx and hoping you could put together your favorite Halo vehicle using LEGO parts when you can’t get a physical set won’t work. I’m not saying that it is impossible to overcome those issues, it’s just going to be a bit more tricky than opening the original boxing and plugging away (literally). It’s true in the opposite direction just as well.

What works is to selectively replace parts where possible, assuming you have a sufficient supply and the colors match, which is a whole other story (and will be the topic of the next article in this series). No matter what you do however, be sure to give it some time and thought. the systems being “compatible” doesn’t mean it’s going to be a walk in the park. At the same time don’t let this discourage you.