LEGO vs. Mega – An Analysis – Part 5

In the closing article for my little series we’re going to have a look at some more generic differences that distinguish Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx sets from LEGO ones. It’s all minor stuff and not really relevant for the actual building of the models, but since I obviously like to geek out on these things, I’m giving you my opinion, regardless.

Ugly and overwrapped?

Since as a European one rarely even gets a chance to buy Mega sets even on Amazon, much less in a physical store, one is quickly inclined to dismiss the package design and handling as unimportant. With many of the coveted sets being so elusive, you’d gladly accept them wrapped in dirty old newspapers if only you could actually get them. that’s how bad things sometimes are. Still, it can’t be denied that a good package design is important. It can make or break the first impression of a set. It can elevate a perhaps not so great set when using good artwork, but also devalue a potentially good model with bad photos and shoddy 3D renderings just as well. Ideally it also gets you in the mood and headspace for a given product, even more so when it’s part of a larger themed series. All of that and of course it needs to convey some hard facts that the buyer might be interested in like parts count, safety and compliance info required by authorities, specific technical details and so on.

LEGO, Various Packages

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Various Packages

To give it to you straight: Mega are just as good or bad as LEGO, depending on how you want to see it. Both companies make a lot of the same mistakes and the overall experience is rather inconsistent. Sometimes bad photoshopping and poorly done CG renderings go hand in hand and are an eyesore, other times it’s not that bad. The hero shots on the front of the boxes are usually okay, though, no matter how they were created. My pet peeve, however, has more to do with the designs backsides and the inefficient use of the space and the placement of those little callouts and info boxes. For the above photos I’ve picked LEGO‘s Star Wars product line as it comes closest to the military/ space tech themes of the Mega products and even this limited selection of three sets shows how varied this can get with a new style being used for every release cycle. In contrast to that, at least in my mind, Mega using different styles makes a bit more sense, as those products shown are based on three different games, after all. Within each series there are the same deviations, though, as you can easily find out when researching the matter further and looking up those pack shots.

One thing that really annoyed me with many boxes of Mega sets is how difficult they are actually to open – that is without completely ripping the box apart right away. The interesting point here is, that actually it should be easier. Many of those boxes have perforated areas on the sides just like LEGO sets have, but they are larger and more easily accessible. In addition, often you also have an option to open the box on one of the long sides as in having a lid on a chest. Now that all sounds very nice, but the trouble starts when you actually want to get to it. The adhesives to seal the boxes are extremely strong and therefore quite a bit of force is required to actually pry them open. Even using all kinds of tools like knives and screwdrivers doesn’t make things necessarily easier, as the glue can be hard as rock. I’m willing to make a concession here that this could be due to many of the models I was able to obtain not having been fresh off the production line and elongated storage periods possibly having contributed to rapid aging and hardening, though. However, there’s one more additional quirk: The boxes use a way stronger and more sturdy cardboard stock than the ones from LEGO. While that’s beneficial to prevent damage during transport, it doesn’t make things easier. Some sets also have transparent plastic tray inserts for presenting the included figures, presenting yet another level of complication, including that annoying thing where you get scratches and cuts from sharp edges.

Baggy Mess

LEGO, Parts in numbered Bags

Once you have successfully opened your box, a number of bags will tumble out. At first glance this doesn’t look much different from LEGO, but it actually is. First it is important to note that until rather recently there were no numbered bags in Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx sets like they now have become commonplace even in many smaller LEGO sets. Apparently there was some trademark or patent registered for this by LEGO. I tried to find out what exactly, but the USPTO and EPA databases are difficult to dig through if you don’t know what exact wording you are looking for, so I came up empty. From the patent simply having expired, to someone having refuted its claims to Mega having found a gap in the fineprint that allows them to work around it anything is possible. Anyway, you can only find numbers on sets from mid-2018 and onward.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Parts in Bags

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Parts in Bags

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Parts in Bags

Therefore instead most of the Mega sets’ bags are sorted according to the type of element, i.e. you have one back with 2 x wide plates, another may contain only curved slopes and then another all those tiny detail parts. Sometimes it even goes so far as having separate sets of bags for different colors and of course the figures and their accessories are also packaged separately. Overall you can end up with quite a lot of stuff for the trash bin.

I count myself lucky in that I never had any completely missing bags, yet from what you can read on the Internet, this doesn’t seem all that uncommon even more recently. On the other hand I have indeed experienced this weird occurrence of having a redundant duplicate bag with parts that I didn’t really need, which also isn’t that uncommon. Some people have reported ending up with so many extraneous bags they could have built half the model a second time. All of this is by no means good and a strong indication that Mega are still relying a lot on stuffing the boxes manually, with the workers either grabbing too many bags or missing them at times and no safeguards like weighing the boxes in place. Clearly there’s room for improvement here. It should even be in their best self-interest to reduce the number of customer support incidents and also to not waste potentially expensive parts.

The Manual leads the Way

You may know that feeling: After you have built a number of LEGO models, you barely even look at the instructions anymore because every step seems to be a logical follow-up to the previous one. You know which elements are required without referring to parts lists and you instinctively seem to understand where they need to go. This “muscle memory” therefore then makes it even more difficult to adapt to systems from other vendors and all of a sudden that thing you forgot about – the quality and comprehensibility of the manual – becomes important again. Many manufacturers will simply mimic the original LEGO style with sensible deviations and enhancements like using ghosting to only show the current step in full color and the rest of the model in a muted, faded uniform tone, but Mega is not in that crowd. The instructions have a completely different style.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Instruction Example Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Instruction Example Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Instruction Example Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Instruction Example Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Instruction Example

The basic layout is always the same – the model (or a sub-assembly) are always shown from the same angle, with one large element serving as a sort of basis and then other elements hovering above, beneath and on the sides of it with arrows pointing the direction in which they need to be attached and colored dots/ stud tops indicating the areas that need to be matched up. This works reasonably well for small groups and smaller pieces, but not so much for larger steps where many bigger elements need to go together. The problem here is that you basically need to peek your eyes out and count the studs or else you may end up misaligning things and then you have to backtrace your errors and start over. A good example are for instance long 2 x plates – discerning an overlap of two rows of studs is easy enough, but when more than half the space is to be covered by another large element and suddenly all studs are marked yellow, red or blue it is of no help. In the end this achieves nothing and it would be better if instead these steps would be spliced into more smaller steps.

There’s another argument for this as well: Due to the similarities of some elements they are difficult to differentiate even in the parts lists above each step. Typical examples for this are the full height vs. the 2/3rd height “cheese slopes” or the angled little slopes which exist as flat versions as well as the one derived from the normal 2/3rd curved slopes you also find in LEGO sets. Not having those side by side in the same building step sure would help. On that note it would also facilitate distinguishing elements in general, especially when they are in those dark metallic or camouflage colors. Fine details may be lost and colors can easily appear too dark due to multiple layers of ink printed on top of one another. There are of course ways around this by pre-processing the imagery before print or using a lighter, non-realistic color to begin with as a stand-in, but this is a topic that could be worth being elaborated in a separate article.

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve tried to share some of my own experiences in this little article series, debunk some myths about Mega products, but also be critical. to me the conclusion remains: It’s different, but by no means better or worse than LEGO. As a matter of fact, and I think that shows throughout my writing, I rather enjoy those products and would certainly get more of them if only they were easier to procure. Not to replace my LEGO ventures, but to complement them and offer some variety to the menu.

There are naturally some shortcomings and there’s still a lot of catching up to do in some areas, but the biggest issue that people tend to cite for not trying out alternate products – insufficient quality of the pieces fit problems – can be almost completely dismissed in this case. They may have existed in the past, are not a problem on the models I have (most of which were produced in the 2016-ish time before the big Mattel takeover crisis) and no doubt you can expect even better quality from current production runs. If there are genuine issues, they are most of the time inherent to the shape and construction of a part and that can only be resolved by constructing new ones/ newer revisions. Where Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx really fall short is overall quality management. This touches upon broken parts all too often finding their way into sets when they should never even have left the factory, entire redundant or missing bags of pieces and miscounts of same. Mind you, I was lucky and only minimally experienced some of those things, but for my taste you have to read about them too regularly for comfort.

On the positive side, aside from the general “it’s different” feeling, you have things like the emphasis on designing the vehicles with hollowed out interiors to actually stow away your little soldiers. This is something that regularly bothers me with LEGO, by the way. They throw lots of minifigures at you in some sets, but barely make provision for actually being able place them on or inside your model. I also quite like some of Mega‘s unique colors that would suit some LEGO models as well. Not all, but some for sure. And of course the big elephant in the room are the direction inverter and SNOT style elements that every other vendor uses, but LEGO refuses to introduce like a stubborn child. You take one look at one of Mega‘s slopes with studs and realize how awkward some construction techniques are in the LEGO world when all it would take is this kind of specialized element.

Anyway, whether you get on board or not is very much still a matter of personal taste and interest. Some hardcore LEGO fans consider it heresy to even talk about this stuff, but if you’re a bit open-minded trust me, it can be fun. to prove my point further, I will try to sneak in some reviews of the sets I have in my regular schedule and I’ll perhaps also one day get around to writing more nerdy stuff about the figures, colors and other stuff I have hinted at, but no promises. This is, after all more a matter of being complete and thorough than catching up with the latest news…

LEGO vs. Mega – An Analysis – Part 4

In the world of bricks – for better or worse – the overall impression of a model hinges a lot not just on the shape of the constituting parts, but also on their color. Hence it becomes an issue of some importance, how consistent those colors are reproduced every time and how they approximate real world surfaces. As a graphics artist of course this is a subject I could discuss for hours on end, both in how technical aspects figure in just as well as individual subjective perception under different lighting conditions, in different environments, against different colors and so on down to debating historic color models as employed by painters and scientists of a given era and how those have changed and evolved. Since this would likely be endlessly boring and there’s already tons of books and info on this subject, I will forego delving into academic debates and focus on the more practical and relevant facets.

As far as Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx is concerned, there are three distinct types of colors: The regular solid colors, their transparent tinted counterparts anda large group of what I call “textured colors”, i.e. specific shades and colors that contain mixtures of different colors or pigments to create certain effects. The latter can be further classified into three sub-sets – metallic, marbled and speckled. There is of course overlap here, as for instance many marbled colors have a metallic component and a basic color one. This makes it hard to sort them in a logical way, even more so since I have yet to find an official list of colors from Mega themselves plus the colors appear to be used and remixed on an “as needed” basis, not so much a fixed pattern. Or in other words: Where LEGO is often reluctant to produce items in a specific color, Mega seem all too willing to come up with ever new combinations or even introduce new colors without much ado.

Precious Marbles

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Metallic ColorsThe marbled colors are very prevalent and predominant on many spaceship and military models as a means to either simulate camouflage patterns or ageing effects like rusty drizzles, oil specks or just generally give vehicles a futuristic or alien vibe. Created by mixing differently tinted granules of plastic and relying on the random mixing of the molten plastic as it is transported through the injection channels and molds in the machine, the one big disadvantage is of course that this is completely unpredictable and essentially each individual part has a completely unique and different pattern.

The downside to this is that you can end up with parts almost consisting entirely of only one color, parts with nicely sized swirls and stripes in relation to the part or model size, parts with too tiny mixing zones and anything inbetween in every combination thinkable. This is evident in the image. As a result different areas on your model can look as if they were built from completely different sets. Therefore it is almost always a good idea (and quite necessary) to sort through identical parts before building and group them in a way that the color usage makes reasonable sense.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Camouflage Colors

Determining and naming a given shade is equally difficult under those conditions. As can be seen, depending on the actual percentage of a given color component contained in a part, the colors will seemingly be a mix of many hues and to make things even more complicated, in particular the metallic tones will of course also shift around under different lighting conditions. A prime example for this is the Pale Gold/ Brass color which can sometimes look just plain golden, but most of the time looks like a rather pale yellow with a green-ish touch and a metallic effect. Naturally, when combined with browns it can also look like copper or that orange-y metal flake paint you find on custom cars/ muscle cars and that was made famous by some Ford Mustang models.

Plain Metal

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Metallic Colors

Other metal colors are a bit more forgiving with the blue-ish grey one so far being my favorite. Several of the colors also appear a bit redundant in that they are barely distinguishable from their counterparts when they are used on some specific parts. For instance the plain gun-metal grey and the marbled metallic grey/ black in the image can barely be told apart just like the metallic nature of the black element is hard to recognize. This is of course only because they are 2×1 plates with only small parts of the texture visible. On larger elements this would be a different story. Still, it can be confusing and is often unnecessary.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Metallic Colors

Freckle Speckle

The speckled colors are a bit more straightforward since there aren’t as many possible combinations based on the requirements of the technical process. That includes the need for a certain amount of contrast between the colors, a minimum size for the grains to even show up and an even distribution in the containing medium/ surrounding plastic – not too few, not too many, no clumps, no empty areas. All examples I have seen feature a relatively bright base color with dark specks, though in theory it would be possible to also sprinkle very bright and opaque colors into slightly translucent dark colors. Of course Mega already make their lives complicated by combining marbled textures with speckled ones, so there’s that thing with theoretically endless combinations again.

Military Commander

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Camouflage Colors

Somewhere in all the regular colors, the textured colors and the metallic ones there is a group of “military colors” that represents a cross-section of all the aforementioned categories and contains examples of each and every specialty. It warrants a separate mention as of course Mega does a sizeable chunk of business with selling figure sets, a majority of which represents soldiers/ troopers from the games they were licensed from. As you can see in the image, to that end there is a lot more variation than just a single olive color or just one dark grey, though my poor photo probably isn’t as telling as holding one of the figures in your hands. Even then the differences are often so subtle you can barely tell which is which.

Not so transparent Transparencies

Transparent pieces have become a prominent part of most brick-based systems these days, not just for windows and windshields. Whether this always makes sense is another question, as I often think that opaque versions of those tiny bits would look better – if only they were available in more colors. If you get my drift: A transparent yellow 1 x 1 tile doesn’t really look like a car headlight when set against a dark grey plate and a faint purple doesn’t look like a disco light against white, either. Rather you would need something like in traditional painting – a base color brightened up with white, light blues and yellows (depending on the actual tone), possibly as semi-transparent items or you print a “light halo” on whenever you need it.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Transparent Colors

Now if you are a bit cynical like I am you could argue that Mega Construx are halfway there. Unfortunately their transparent pieces are all too often not so transparent at all and have a slightly milky, foggy appearance. For some elements that is inevitable like the marbled transparent blue/ opaque white parts – some undesirable mixing is bound to occur along with the intended marbling. For others it seems like an unwanted side-effect. The actual cause is ominous, but there are a few things I can think of:

  • Residue – The separator agent used to prevent the plastic from sticking to the mold could react with the plastic even after years. Similarly, it could cause dust particles etc. to stick to the surface when it hasn’t been removed fully.
  • Imperfect mold surfaces -The molds could require additional smoothing to remove microscopic irregularities. Those may not show up on regular pieces, but only on transparencies due to refractive and reflective effects.
  • Not ideal temperature control -The materials could be injected too hot, leading to partial decomposition of some ingredients or they could be cooling too fast, causing internal microfractures.
  • Contaminated raw materials – Though quality control should prevent this, it’s possible that on rare occasions unwanted substances are brought in with the raw plastic already. They may either pollute the material directly or react in ways similar to what was described in the previous points.
  • Initial choice of material – There is not one single type of plastic that can be used for all purposes even when it’s “just” for a brick-based toy. In effect this means that the manufacturers always use different materials to begin with and naturally are always looking for ways to reduce cost. They may decide on less suitable materials to save a few pennies, in turn taking chances with quality. if you need proof on this, check out some discussions on LEGO‘s recent changes for transparent pieces and the issues surrounding them.

Not all is lost here, though, as sometimes a bit of slight fogging is useful, regardless. A good example for this are the neon transparent colors, which as per the first paragraph in this section benefit from being a bit more opaque and appear even more glowing. For most other colors it will depend in which context they are used and how important the see-through effect is. Despite my niggles you will find it perfectly acceptable most of the time, being that Mega somehow still get it right for large parts like vehicle cockpit canopies and only smaller parts are affected by some of those issues.

Off-register Normality

Of course the special is nothing without the mundane and in this case this means the regular solid colors. Due to the massive reliance on the metallic and marbled colors the basic colors are actually sometimes pretty rare in many of the collectible Halo, Destiny, Call of Duty and so on sets, but are used to good effect in sets like the Pokémon series or movie-based set for the Despicable Me / Minions franchise. Due to the near impossibility to obtain a broader selection of sets at reasonable prices my view on this is of course limited, but let me try to explain my observations, regardless.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Colors

The first thing you will notice with many Mega colors is this “almost, but not quite” feeling with regards how they match up with original LEGO colors. They are always just a tad too light, too blue, too yellow etc. when compared directly. A good example here is the Sand Blue 1 x 4 plate in the above image which next to the LEGO 2 x 1 brick seems to get more bluish the longer you look at it. In contrast to that you don’t need to keep your eyes glued to the picture for long to see how dull the Orange looks.

In the photo below it’s easy to see that the Light Rose/ Light Pink color is warmer for Mega, meaning it contains more yellow, making it shift towards a more orange-y shade. Conversely, the Azure color, while a close enough match to LEGO‘s Dark Azure, has a tinge towards the lighter Medium Azure from the same company.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Colors

Other colors are even more tricky like the Dark Red. Mega Construx‘ version is much more red. It’s difficult to gauge this just based on a picture with two isolated elements next to each other, but the tonal disparity will eventually become quite apparent when you use those elements in bigger numbers to cover larger regions. This, BTW, applies to all colors discussed here.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Colors

While we’re already in the brown tones, the actual browns are a thing of their own. When building with LEGO I often find that the available choices are a bit limited in that they do not necessarily look natural when used on plants, trees and wood elements. The Reddish Brown feels too red, the Dark Brown is so scarcely used it’s almost sunk into obscurity (and parts in that color therefore being rare and expensive) and on the other end of the spectrum similar issues can be observed with the Medium Dark Flesh, Dark Orange and Dark Tan color. Mega‘s browns, at least to me, are a bit more satisfying in that regard. I especially like the Latte Brown, which exactly captures this feeling that I would want.

Something you perhaps already have noticed in a good chunk of images throughout the article is the lack of opacity in many of the Mega colors. If you haven’t, please have a look again and you should recognize how light seeps in from all directions and makes the edges look lighter. This kind of translucency is usually not an issue, but still undesirable. Point in case: It makes the perception of the actual color even more dependent on factors like which background colored elements are placed against, how thick walls are and how great in turn their ability is to block light and, worst of all, regardless of how well you build your models, you will always have elements that look oddly semi-transparent because light creeps into the smallest gaps and scatters inside the parts.

This is something the company need to address eventually. I’m totally aware, though, that this will be a tricky thing as changing the mixture of the materials is a complex problem that has a multitude of potential repercussions. Newer models with tweaked settings could give a completely different perception, colors may require to be dialled back or dulled down to compensate and even the production process would be affected as more pigment could mean the plastic becomes more brittle and more difficult to process. It’s a touchy matter.

Printed Parts

Before we leave, a few short words on printed elements and the quality of the prints. In contrast to LEGO who still insist on making use of a lot of stickers, by now most alternate manufacturers have moved on and realized that users do not necessarily want to put up with this potentially frustrating process and crooked results and therefore use prints whenever technically possible and feasible in terms of cost it may incur. For Mega this more or less should be an easy proposition, given that due to their massive focus on their figure lines and the accessories that come with them, many of which are printed and custom painted extensively, they should have the technical capabilities and experience in producing reasonably printed bricks as well.

That’s a bold assumption, of course, and the reality of it is naturally a bit different. I can alleviate any fears of something being fundamentally terribly wrong, but there are a few minor issues that I can’t ignore, either. The most glaring of those is the roughness of many paint jobs. From the paint being too thick to actual pigment size to micro bubbles to unwanted reactions of the solvents with the plastic surface this could have a million causes, but clearly I think it could be improved. It’s not every set and apparently the latest 2018/ 2019 releases (of which so far I haven’t been able to procure one) seem to already have ramped up quality, but it could be a concern, if only a small one.

A bigger problem for me are the all too often way too toned down/ dull colors. This issue first and foremost affects military models and everything else that has a (pseudo-) camouflage, including space craft made from marbled bricks, but it needs to be pointed out. Let me be clear on that – as someone who has been interested in military aviation all his life I totally “get” the meaning of low-vis(ibility) markings and the like, but as you can read in pretty much every scale modeling magazine, you need to account for the “scale effect” when translating a real vehicle into a model. this means that you need to either brighten or darken colors, shift their hues ever so slightly or play with the level of glossiness to get a perception that closely matches the original. I feel that this doesn’t always happen here and printed bits get swallowed by their surroundings.

Last, and I promise that will be my last complaint for now, are the dysfunctional glow-in-the-dark colors. The graphics designers that do the marketing photos hopelessly exaggerate this aspect. Understandably there are limitations to these types of colors in the first place, but it seems the flavor chosen by Mega simply doesn’t deliver at all. Therefore I would prefer that they just settled on bright standard colors for those situations.

Final Thoughts

At first Mega Construx colors take quite a bit of getting used to, especially if you dive in head first and buy one of those sets that uses metallic or marbled colors as your first one. However, they quickly kind of grow on you and you find yourself thinking more and more how perfectly they make sense. Some models wouldn’t look nearly as interesting in more plain colors, which I suppose is in itself a statement: Some of those colors can enliven a model considerably by tricking your eyes into perceiving more details without actually having to use more parts. That is of course in conjunction with strategically placed gaps and edges and the shape of the elements themselves.

The regular solid colors are a bit of a letdown on the other hand. The lack of opacity on some of them diminishes their vibrancy and as a result those models do not always look as good as they possibly could to the point of avoiding certain lighting situations because the light seeping in will only make the problems even more visible. Let me reiterate, though, that this assessment is based on the limited number of slightly older sets I actually was able to obtain and that this could already have been improved on the latest releases. In fact I’m pretty sure things will improve from here on as after the troublesome last two years (with Mega being absorbed into Mattel) things seem to be back on track and we could see more sets being turned out in better quality again.

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.

LEGO vs. Mega – An Analysis – Part 2

In any modular building system, be that based on plastic bricks, wood blocks or metal elements, the key to success is always how those individual bits go together. For once this is really a case of “the whole can only be as good as the sum of its parts” in a very literal meaning. That’s no different for Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx or for that matter other systems built on LEGO-compatible pieces.

With all of these some commonly accepted base parameters and criteria must be met. Those can be quickly summed up as follows:

  • Mechanical stability and robustness of each individual piece.
  • Highest possible manufacturing quality of each element to comply with standard measurements and tolerances.
  • Sufficiently stable connections of elements with each other, either directly or specific adapter pieces.
  • A good selection of components to cover a wide range of possible building scenarios.
  • Availability of elements in large quantities to keep costs down.
  • Interoperability and interchangeability of parts to allow for quick conceptualization, fast production turnovers and easy eventual repairs.
  • Optional parameters like multiple colors, system-specific color-coding or grouping of elements according to function, additional custom elements and finally integration with compatible systems from other vendors.

Evaluating all of these aspects would be an enormous task, so I’m going to focus only on a few aspects. First let’s have a look at what parts are actually available in the Mega range and how they potentially hold up.

This section will assume you know your way around LEGO‘s parts repository, since it’s simply impossible to include matching counterparts for every element nor is ist feasible for me to include even more photos – it’s enough work as it is. So I’ll mention items here and there by name only and then you should be able to figure out things with a bit of help from an Internet search. The same is true in reverse. This will by no means be a complete listing or reference catalog of every Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx part. Everything shown should merely be seen as an example of a specific element category based on shape and functionality. There’s a good chance you will come across items you have never seen before with every new set you build.

Standard Parts

As a system based on the original concepts and designs by LEGO, inevitably there will be elements that are exact copies, even though in both worlds some of them become less and less relevant and are replaced/ superseded by other elements and new building techniques. This in particular extends to the classic 2 x 4 brick and its siblings of which ironically in some sets not a single one is included these days. However, this is more than made up for by the use of only one unit wide bricks that have pretty much become the go-to element in various lengths not just for shaping walls. Other basics include plates and tiles of different lengths and widths, though already here are some minor deviations in terms of which combinations are actually available.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Basic Elements, Bricks

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Basic Elements, Bricks

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Basic Elements, Bricks

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Basic Elements, Plates

Most interestingly Mega have decided to include 1 x 5 plates and tiles (which stupidly enough I forgot to include in the pictures), meaning that from 1 x 1 up to 1 x 6 you have a full deck of choices whereas LEGO only uses two-unit-increments after the 1 x 4 plate. The reasoning here can of course be argued, but from a practical point of view this solves a few issues like centering an odd length element on an even length one by half a stud width or covering gaps where otherwise you would have to use a 1 x 2 and a 1 x 3 plate/ tile in combination, possibly at the cost of less stable connections. Additionally it also can avoid those unwelcome situations where you need to fill a leftover gap with a 1 x 1 element.

Same, same, but different

In addition to the straight replicas there is a considerable number of elements that cater for the same functionality and in fact look something like 90 percent identical, yet feature structural differences that affect how they can be used. Sometimes this is because they need to integrate with other, even more specific parts, another time it’s merely a different approach to manufacture an element that may dictate e.g. a different split of the mold.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Modified Bricks

Modified bricks with sideways studs compared to the LEGO variants.

A perfect example for this are the modified bricks with studs on the sides. Unlike LEGO‘s version, Mega‘s variant has hollowed out reverse sides that are shaped in such a way they can be plugged onto other bricks directly. In the LEGO world this option only exists for 1 x 1 bricks, but here it is also available on the 1 x 2 and 1 x 4 ones. How useful this may be in practice is something yet left to discover, but at least in theory it would add one more possibility to sideways/ perpendicular building techniques.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Hollow Studs Example

A regular plate and its alternative version with hollow studs.

Another good example are plates with studs that have holes that actually go through the entire plate, not just the stud itself. There is of course a specific reason for this, namely how the can be used with Mega‘s mini pin system, which is explained further below. Except for a few larger plates where only select studs in strategic positions are fully drilled through, so to speak, there are redundant versions e.g. of 1 x 3 plates. So for all intents and purposes, those plates do not replace the original ones with solid studs but rather complement them to be used instead when necessary.

Clever little buggers

So far we have only covered items that are mostly identical, but of course the differences in the individual implementations of the same basic rules only become clear once you move on to parts that truly distinguish them from one another and ideally advances them beyond the competitors. Often they are just tiny modifications to specific bricks, other times more fundamental changes and then of course there is a whole slew of unique elements designed from scratch that you may not find elsewhere. Some of it isn’t worth making much fuss about, but there are some things that made me go “Ah, that’s quite ingenious!” more than once and therefore I want to point it out here.

Exhibit a: Curved Slopes and rounded Parts

This is something that always leaves me somewhat unsatisfied with LEGO sets. There are a few reasons for this. One of the most obvious is that a lot of those pieces use very large radii, resulting in a very flat curvature/ inclination. On the other hand the parts that on Bricklink go as rounded bricks/ modified bricks with curved parts often lack matching counterparts like suitable corner pieces, cones or even basic intermediate bricks to bridge gaps. Additionally in recent years many of those bricks (and arches) have been outfitted with an extended edge at the bottom that adds an offset, not always making it possible to get smooth transitions by just putting one curved element next to another. Don’t get me wrong – I understand why LEGO are doing it (to facilitate assembly and disassembly and avoid too much friction), but it’s not simplifying the overall design and build of a model.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Curved Slopes

Different curved slopes and rounded elements.

 

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Curved Slopes

Another view of the rounded elements. Note the consistent radii on some items, allowing for easy stacking and alignment.

 

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Curved Slopes

The classic 2 x 2 rounded slope in different colors.

Mega in my view does a much better job here with slopes using smaller radii and foregoing this odd “step”. I much prefer this straightforward method as it results in a better representation of curved surfaces, especially when pieced together from multiple parts. Naturally you also get the additional curved bricks that are so missing from LEGO‘s range. In fact it gets even better since they also come as the “inverted” flavor, meaning you have versions that can be plugged on from below. As a result you can create an almost perfect horizontally cylindrical shape right off the bat just by putting a few pieces together. In the LEGO world this would be the point where you’d often have to resort to (expensive) curved panels, hinge plates and convoluted SNOT (studs not on top) sideways/ perpendicular building techniques.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Round Bricks

Some rounded bricks. Note the two different radii on the quarter sections and how this could be used to create different shapes.

This process is further facilitated by a couple of specific rounded bricks that can be used to create transitional areas or cap of some of these constructs. The interesting observation here is that there are also rounded bricks cut in half and some that have two different radii. This can be particularly useful for vehicles where you may need small radius rounded corners or rounded protrusions need to look like they are part of the surface/ butt-joined to it/ half-recessed molded into it. When turned on their side using respective bricks and adapters they can also mimic boxes and rounded covers like you find them on military vehicles quite often.

In fairness, though, one has to concede that this is basically an unsolvable mystery for both companies. It’s simply unpredictable which radii you may need to create a specific curved surface on a model and it’s a game you only can lose. You’d have to have hundreds of different pieces just in case. That being so, neither can ever be entirely complete and so there will be gaps in the parts selection no matter what.

Exhibit b: Straight Slopes

Tying into the previous point to some extent are the straight (triangular) slopes and “roof” bricks. They can of course be used to visually create the illusion of extending an imaginary radius and let things taper off and smoothly blend in with the surroundings. A noticeable distinction between the two companies is that many of the basic Mega slopes will be plain and not have an extra stud on the raised end like is common for LEGO (see the section on studded slopes for typical examples). While this simplifies just plugging on those items as a cover onto a finished superstructure, it has the disadvantage of also making it a lot easier to inadvertently snap those slopes off again.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Straight Slopes and Wedges

Different straight/ angled slopes and wedges. Note the steps and insets on some of them.

 

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Straight Slopes

A bunch of straight slopes unique to the Mega system.

A point you cannot ignore is that most of the smaller slopes come in two different flavors: one with a full brick height and one with two-thirds brick height as LEGO does it. The question here is whether this is actually necessary, as it can massively complicate the building process. You can literally spend hours digging through your parts trying to find the correct version. For myself I have decided that this is pretty much a waste of my time and therefore wouldn’t mind if the full height versions got retired/ abolished.

My point here: Mega has developed quite refined SNOT/ studs on sides techniques over the years, so clearly there would be ways to substitute those elements and use a different construction method where the orientations are changed. From my limited experience building some Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx sets I have rarely encountered a situation where holding on to those full height slopes struck me as essential. Most of the time using a 2/3 height and compensating with a plate beneath seemed just as good. At best one could argue that for some models it might make the appearance slightly more blocky when angled and curved regions do not transition as smoothly, but I’d take this as a minor issue.

Exhibit c: Studded Slopes

Getting to the truly interesting parts, we first have to mention the studded slopes, meaning slopes with studs on the actual angled face. I think those are pretty cool for a number of reasons. The most obvious one is of course the plain use for directly attaching elements at an angle. This is often used for details such as railings, grip bars, shield elements or even eyes on creature models and unless you have seen it, you probably won’t believe how such a simple thing can liven up a model and make it feel more “real” as even on very perpendicularly constructed technical items like a support beam structure on a large machine in the real world you will often find latches, lugs, protrusions, panels, levers, switches and other auxiliary stuff fixed at an angle, be it just for user friendliness for the human operators.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Slopes with Studs

Angled slopes with studs on top.

By extension this also solves to some degree a deeper problem: the number of elements you may need overall to represent specifically angled and curved surfaces. By smartly combing a limited number of e.g. curved slopes with those studded slopes you get yourself a new subset of angled elements. After all, two times 30 degrees still makes 60 degrees, doesn’t it? This for instance can be used to good effect to create round-ish or beveled bridging panels when conventional vertical construction and sideways techniques are used.

Some people would probably argue that this can be done with LEGO using all sorts of hinges, but it’s simply not the same in terms of stability or simplicity of construction. Moreover Mega use hinges as well where appropriate, so that argument gets even less valid and relevant. The pertinent question therefore only can be why LEGO isn’t using something similar. They most definitely tried some time in the 1990s, but never consequently followed through, so this didn’t go anywhere and we’re all left for the worse by having to jump hoops when requiring a specific angled construction.

Exhibit d: Direction Inverter Plates

This next item sticks out like a sore thumb and for me is a very painful omission from LEGO‘s parts. Yes, even if you accepted the absence of custom angled parts and a few other things, wouldn’t it often just be wonderful to be able to build bi-directionally with studs on studs? That alone could make up for some gaps in the portfolio. Most importantly it would give a huge boost to detailing the undersides of models. Say what you will, by comparison the lower sections even of a LEGO UCS model look barren and there simply is no way to attach more details because most of them will require a stud, not a hole. Or do you remember how you always need to use axles to combine round bricks and plates to get studs on both ends?

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Direction Inverter Plates

Direction inverter plates. Note how the top (left) and bottom (right) are identical in the studs layout and only the strengthening ridges differentiate the underside.

Having those simple inverters would do a lot and as the pictures illustrate, it doesn’t require a ton of different shapes and is once more about strategically placing the right element and then build on it. This is even more frustrating since basically the 2 x 2 inverted tile sometimes used to smoothly fair over undersides of plates already almost looks like the corresponding inverter plate. It’s just missing the opposite side studs.

Exhibit e: SNOT Adapters/ Converters/ Angular Plates/ Brackets

Full disclosure: For my own LEGO MOCs I try to avoid these items like the plague (as do many others), but LEGO keep using them in almost every set in one form or another for building stuff on the sides of bricks. The one, yet single most important reason why I prefer 1 x 1 bricks and have quite a dislike for what on Bricklink is called “brackets” (and LEGO simply calls “angular/ angle plates”) is that pesky offset they introduce. As we say here in Germany the sideways part is neither fish nor flesh, with the plate thickness/ height not actually being a normal plate height, but more like half of it .

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, SNOT Adapters

Mega SNOT adapters compared to their LEGO counterparts. Note the differences in sideways plate thickness and the resulting offsets.

 

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, SNOT Adapters

Some more Mega SNOT adapters.

That in itself wouldn’t necessarily be an issue, but the stinker is that there are no elements that compensate this offset again. This often makes it impossible to create “watertight” connections and to boot, anything plugged on there may feel “springy”. There is of course again a reasoning behind this – avoiding too much stress on the elements by giving them some room to move and bend plus in addition avoid scratching by not letting surfaces of bricks touch directly. In practice this idealistic approach however more often causes a lot of head scratching than it helps you build your models. Most of the time you need to “thicken up” to even be able to attach for example a curved slope directly, which in my view defeats the purpose.

As you probably already guessed by now, Mega take a different approach and one that I much prefer. Yes, they use a full plate height on the sides – or none at all. The latter is in particular clever and represented by that little piece with the studs-only on the side. Granted, at first sight those look like micro-wheels directly molded onto a 1 x 2 plate look fragile, but the whole construct is rock solid. Since the placement of the studs will center everything attached to them exactly between two plates, this is often used to attach little details that themselves are only two-thirds of a brick height or in situations where you would fair over the construct with a curved slope for instance that with its open end would bring it up to a full brick height again.

Exhibit f: The Rest of the Lot

As should be evident I could go on for quite a while, but to bring this to a close allow me to just point out one more little gem whose usefulness impressed me.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Round Brick/ Turntable

The round brick that also doubles as a turntable.

On first glance the 4 x 4 round brick with a central pin hole doesn’t really look that much different from the one LEGO has, but where things once more show how a bit of collateral thinking goes a long way is the inclusion of an underside plate with an attached short pin segment. This allows the brick to double as a simple turntable element and is in fact not dissimilar to LEGO‘s older style turntables. Granted, it feels a bit “so 1990s”, but since you actually get the full package every time by ways of it being packaged on the original sprue, you’d be hard pressed to complain. In a pinch it will do and also as a stand-in for a prototype while you come up with a more robust solution (if it’s really needed).


What’s interesting to me about all of this is how similar requirements can lead to almost totally opposite solutions at times, at least with regards to some aspects like construction techniques and user-friendliness. Both companies no doubt started out quite similar, but then somewhere things took a serious turn and the part designs deviated more and more in the sense that Mega after copying the basic bricks (and perhaps some additional not so useful LEGO stuff) they worked up a deeper understanding of what would be required for their needs and created their own designs.

To me it’s also apparent that Mega simply are more pragmatic in their approach whereas LEGO all too often seem to lose themselves in more academic, hypothetical considerations like long-term effects on the brick repository, brick durability and their self-imposed rules on what good and what bad building techniques are. None of that may be relevant at all to you as a builder, though. I at least don’t know if ten years down the road I’ll still be doing this and whether or not I then will get crazy over crumbling aged bricks from a decade ago.

Nice to have?!

There’s quite a huge category of elements that I would consider nice to have, but that are not necessarily essential to actually building the models in terms of contributing to structural stability or allowing you to do things that you couldn’t do otherwise. To some degree they are therefore optional, but really make life easier and your models look better. A good chunk of the pieces is what in modelers circles is referred to as greebling, i.e. small elements with a specific surface texture that break up the smooth surface.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Detail Parts

A plethora of little “greeble” details.

A first sub-set are the various gratings, grilles and gills. Unlike LEGO‘s generic gutter grating/ radiator grille (design no. 2412) having to fill in for almost every use case over there, you get a much greater variety here, whether it’s an actual mesh imitation, real protruding bumps or just the play of light and shadow to give the illusion of something being there. In combination with other elements that partially cover up things and some of Mega‘s more unique colors that can create some nice illusions such as engine details, open avionics bays and so on. Funny, though, an actual copy of LEGO‘s design is missing, which still could be useful at times. E.g. floors of some vehicles are regularly covered with this kind of plates to allow dirt and water to fall through.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Hand Rail and Tube Elements

Some parts that could be used as hand rails or external surface tubing.

Another group of those small items are all kinds of latches, hatches and covers that can be used to similar effect. Some of the more voluminous elements are also used to simulate “black boxes” on military equipment, meaning battery cases, electronics modules or in case of round parts things like cooling jackets for gun barrels or night vision devices. On Sci-Fi-oriented models they also often double as externally visible bumps caused by internal equipment such as landing gear bays, clamp mechanisms for cargo containers and so on.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Radial Fans and Grilles

Some radial fan, grille and cap elements used to simulate jet engine parts, exhausts and intakes.

A further set of parts is dedicated to simulate different kinds of intakes and exhausts. There is some overlap with other uses, so the grouping is a bit arbitrary and some elements are listed redundantly, but we won’t let this stop us from mentioning them here. However, the most noticeable parts are of course the fan imitations that on several models are used to simulate jet engine front and end sections. Most often they are used as simple caps and not faired in with extra curved slopes and that’s why they have a molded-in lip. At times this becomes a bit of a disadvantage, though. When you want the inner part of your engine to “light up” in a different color, you have to find ways to stack those elements (or use others entirely) and disguise/ hide the lip. Still, in my view it’s way better than LEGO‘s reliance on printed round tiles (at best) and transparent dish pieces for similar situations.

A somewhat ambiguous topic are wedge plates. It’s a subject I don’t particularly like to deal with in the LEGO world already for the simple reason that there are way too many variants and one never seems to have the right ones at hand, at least not in the right colors or sufficient quantities. Even if you have, it’s easy to get some of them mixed up. Others are used more rarely and just lay around and catch dust. Having even more options on that end can make life only more difficult. Mega have done just that. In addition to there seemingly existing a plate for every angle and length, there are further sub-variants of some plates. Some have a protruding tab with an extra stud, others an extra row of studs on one of the sides. See how this could get really messy really quick?

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Tiles

Various tiles. Note in particular the large tiles and the wedge shaped ones.

In more happy news on that wedge thing, there are tiles that perfectly line up with the angled sides or at least roughly follow the angles. This is used to good effect to simulate different panels on a model and accentuate the “flow” of a design by orienting the tiles suitably. This is helped a lot by the fact that Mega unlike LEGO still uses large tiles like e.g. the 6 x 6 one in full square or as a diagonally cut-in-half version, making fairing over even a large model relatively easy. Additionally, tiles with cropped corners can be used to simulate recess access ports and similar. Combined with all the more traditional flavors like one unit wide strip-type tiles this opens lots of opportunities for hinting at details without actually building them. In fairness, though, LEGO are catching up with several new “modified” tile types having been released that would allow to mimic some of those effects.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Wedges and Custom Parts

One thing I have observed is that Mega‘s wedge pieces seem a bit more versatile while at the same time not requiring as many variants. This is strictly subjective of course, but my impression is that this mostly comes down to a few simple things:

  • The wedges are usually better tailored to line up with the straight and curved slope bricks. As a result you can build smooth surfaces without getting unwanted steps more easily.
  • More focus is placed on integrating them during the build instead of just plugging them on later, effectively handling critical regions by blending them in with the surroundings.
  • Larger wedge pieces are almost always split into left and right sections instead of being one huge chunk.

At least for the military and fictional spaceship stuff this makes perfect sense and it does for some other subjects as well. It also incidentally seems to have the effect of enforcing a somewhat consistent scale and style of the models. At least for the few ones I have they seem to line up pretty well in that regard. Admittedly, though, due to the availability and pricing issues explained in the first part of this series I have not been able to get my hands on a set that is supposed to represent a really huge vessel and has been shrunk down heavily. I could well imagine that this has a much larger impact on how you perceive the proportions of a model then and how exactly it replicates the original.

In the interest of a balanced view and fairness towards LEGO I also fully understand why they have so many large wedge pieces (and a ton of matching other large parts to go with them). When you have series aimed at kids like City or Friends it only seems natural that you will want to simplify the building process and ensure stability by using less, but larger and more solid parts. Assembling a bonnet of a Friends vehicle sure would be more challenging if there weren’t those pre-shaped triple curved 4 x 4 or 4 x 6 wedges that already instantaneously look like the hood of a 70’s car.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Landscape Pieces

A selection of landscape pieces in different colors.

As a last group of items that I find quite, quite useful and wish that LEGO had them, too, are the ground pieces/ plates with the irregular, jagged edges. I’m not pretending that I would need them all the time, but one of the ironies here is that I’m always dreading having to build a structured landscape from LEGO for the exact reason that they don’t have these simple plates. Sure, a lot of times it doesn’t seem necessary to begin with, but how about sets like Mia’s Treehouse? To me it appears that it would have looked so much better and more organic on an irregular piece of ground. I would think that similar observations could be made for instance for the current Arctic series in City. Some rugged pieces of ice perhaps? Sounds attractive to me…

The ugly side of Things

While so far most of what I have written will no doubt sound a bit all too good to be true, the old axiom of “where there is light, there is also shadow” rings true and it’s a rather dark shadow looming. Yes, unfortunately Mega don’t really have a handle on anything that plugs a pin into a hole, so to speak. There are several subsets of parts that have issues but let me exemplify them by focussing on the mini pin system.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Mini Pin Elements

Some parts of the mini pin system.

This refers to elements that fit into a hollowed-out stud’s inner diameter or similar. In the LEGO world those would be referred to as bars, antennas, hinges or modified bricks in Bricklink lingo, though their use there is nowhere near as extensive – and for good reason. Let’s get one thing out of the way – no, it’s not the stability or robustness of the thin elements. They may look fragile, but they are a lot tougher than you may think. Unless you really step on them, they are difficult to break or damage. The one exception here are occasionally some colored transparent elements since they use a more brittle material. Generally though, this stuff is quite stable. So what’s the problem then?

As you might have guessed, any such system is highly dependent on extremely small tolerances of the female (hole or socket) element and the male element (pin) and this is where this particular implementation fails more often than not. It’s a case where a micrometer too little or too much can have an enormous impact. Typically you will struggle with “too much” on the pins and “too little” on the holes, meaning there will be a lot of resistance when you try to insert the pins. At times the friction is so strong it will be impossible to get the pins flush with the element that holds them and they grind to a halt long before their actual stopping point like the little stopper ring on some elements or the bottom of the opposite hole.

The inverse of the above happens much less frequently, but can be just as annoying. When you are supposed to e.g. attach an element using the small 90 degree “hook” at a specific angle and it isn’t tight enough, the element will simply tip over or rotate freely in a direction you don’t want it to. This can be very frustrating if you want to align cannons/ guns on a model and they always droop down according to gravity for instance or the fins of your rockets don’t stay aligned.

Finally, to top it off there is a really stupid use of the mini pin system. I can’t put it any nicer, in particular since it truly exposes the shortcomings of the whole approach and can be extremely aggravating. This time comes when you are supposed to join multiple tubes with two-sided pins to form long “axles”, tentacles or whatever. Connecting two tubes? Okay, that still works. Connecting three, four, five? Not so much. Point in case: The whole system gets bendy and unstable. The risk of damage increases with every bit of length you add and ironically it’s usually not the pins, but rather the tubes that start to crack as the forces wedge the pins deeper and deeper into them.

Now here’s the thing: On an idealistic level, none of this should be any concern. After you’ve built the model and put it up in your showcase, why should you care? It may have been a pain, but you wrangled it into submission, after all (or simply glued it into place or scraped of some plastic). But of course there’s a difference between “working okay” and “doing it right”. Things can get very ugly once you may need to/ want to disassemble a model or rectify an issue during the built. Pulling out those pins can require all the tricks in the book like using rubber gloves to increase grip or even heavy equipment like pliers, in which case of course you will inevitably make scratches and dents, ruining the parts. See the issue?

Ultimately the described issues boil down to precision and manufacturing problems, so there’s hope yet that one day this may work flawlessly, but for the time being this is a major pain in the neck. In fact it would be half as painful if it wasn’t even used as often. Don’t get me wrong – there is an inherent elegance and power to the system as such and I for instance like the angled arm piece a lot when it’s used to construct support structures, limbs or trees, but overall it’s just not the easy-going fun it probably should be. Where possible other solutions should be used and the system as a whole is likely a good candidate for parts revisions and much stricter quality management.

Similar observations apply to other systems that depend on a similar mating logic, be that the cross-shaped “real” axles or the full size regular pin system. In the latter case it stands to note that most often you will notice that the pins feel somehow coarse and rough and are already difficult to insert in the holes. As you would expect, they then cause way too much friction, sometimes making what should be an easily movable part or sub-assembly almost unmovable. Again, I strictly consider all of those things I mentioned problems during the production process that could be resolved, but that doesn’t change the fact that for you as a builder they are a concern

Custom and spicy

An important part of Mega‘s more complex collectible sets are all sorts of custom parts that are specific and exclusive to a model or at best used a handful of times throughout the whole range. A very typical example for this are the various cockpit canopies of the aerial vehicles and spaceships the in the Halo, Destiny and Call of Duty series. This is complemented by equally custom-shaped intake parts on some models, though it seems that those by now have been used so often they almost qualify as regular parts.

Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx, Scenery Parts

A look at some scene decoration.

I would put some other parts in that same category. There is for instance a specific set of ammunitions belts, gun barrels, rockets, jerry cans etc. that pretty obviously once were developed as parts for the mini figures or as decorative scene elements and are frequently used to add interest to models or stand in as lookalike parts when they are similar enough. LEGO of course does this, too, to some degree. When you do a little research on the matter it’s really surprising how many elements originated as minifig accessories.

On that note: Of course more or less a good chunk of the mini soldiers consist of “custom” parts in that when necessary they are put together from existing elements in new colors or indeed actual entirely fresh parts are created for them. Usually the latter especially extends to helmets and faces or special pieces of armor, though basically it can be anything. Even weapons like machine guns will often be recreated so exactly, that new parts are needed to represent a specific mark, production batch or modification. This attention to detail is admirable, but totally wasted on me.

Now the fundamental question here is of course is whether this is worth it and how it figures into the bigger picture. Many defenders of LEGO‘s approach to avoid custom parts and instead try to recreate everything using standardized parts is of course understandable and makes a lot of sense when you strictly consider the modular nature of the system. However, all too often it becomes a seriously limiting factor as well as some recent examples like the Aston Martin DB 5 (10262)show. Point in case: Those models are marketed as collectors items, after all, so creating custom parts to make them look prettier would not be such a bad thing.

That’s also my stance on how Mega Construx/ Mega Bloks do it: I don’t mind or even welcome those custom parts when they solve a very specific issue on a model that I’ll keep around in its assembled form and will just enjoy it as a display model. I much prefer a cockpit to look right and believable than its complex curvatures being hacked together from other parts that still don’t look right. Mega being able to do it without bankrupting also disproves an old theory – no, it’s not about the cost for new molds being prohibitive and unattainable. There are other considerations at work and the two companies simply have decided to take a different approach to the subject.


While this article is already long and exhausting, we by no means have covered everything there is. There is still a considerable number of specialized bricks, items with pins, hinges and so on left, but covering these in detail would indeed be way too much and go beyond the original intention of comparing the two systems. I’m probably already too detailed in many areas and have written way too much.

Words of Wisdom?

Ultimately the question of whether LEGO or Mega do it better is nigh on impossible to answer. It’s a constant race and this is easily evidenced by how the systems develop and sometimes you have to wonder who is copying who or at least drawing inspiration from.

How even simple changes can advance things is for instance apparent with the angled 1 x 2 slopes (design nos. 29119 and 29120) LEGO introduced in 2017. Ever since they are used everywhere to create nicely curved ends on cars and similar and sets like the Statue of Liberty (21042) would look totally different without them. Yet the truth is that Mega had this type of element for much longer and have used it to good effect. Similar observations could likely be made for the opposite direction for some parts just as well.

Due to their cleverness and usefulness I’m on the verge of saying that the pupil (Mega)surpassed the master (LEGO)on some parts, yet Mega‘s parts portfolio feels oddly old-fashioned at times. I blame this mostly on some redundant items anda few “weak links” like the pin system that make building not always enjoyable. Some quality issues and the unusual colors figure in here as well, but that’s a discussion for another time. Still, you can’t deny that some of these solutions are simply more efficient than what LEGO offers.

In a way this is where LEGO‘s own good intentions also get in the way. At times they are simply too academic about it instead of just having fun and running with it. I would also dare to guess that the crisis in the early 2000s and the following massive culling of usable parts has led to LEGO moving extremely cautiously. So there’s that, too. In the end, though, it’s about how everything goes together and the finished models look and we will explore more of this aspect in the next
article.

LEGO vs. Mega – An Analysis – Part 1

While this little blog will quite likely always be primarily focused on LEGO, there’s of course no harm in looking out at other shores. That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of articles looking at some alternate brick-based systems and how they compare to LEGO. This will be limited by how I get my hands on this stuff due to things like limited financials and availability of some products, so I won’t claim to spread ultimate wisdom here. regardless, I will try to do this as comprehensively and objectively as I can in the hopes it may be of use to some people at least. The first will be a multipart series on Mega BrandsMega Bloks/ Mega Construx.

The Reasons

I like LEGO a lot and as is evident from the articles on this blog, as a male adult of a certain age I don’t even stay away from themes like Friends and Ninjago, weird as this may be to some. However, this doesn’t cover up the fact that after a while it gets a bit one-sided and stale no matter how many sets you buy. Eventually things become repetitive and you start to feel like you’ve seen the same a hundred times already. This feeling is further amplified by lack of differentiation across different series and many sets being quite similar, after all. For instance you could build a Friends vehicle one day and the next day one from the City series and you can’t help the impression that you’ve done the same steps before and only the coloration of the model is different.

Additionally I always feel like something is missing and to me that are some “serious” products for adults. By that I mean something that provides a grittier, darker take and at the same time a certain sense of heightened realism. Now in theory that latter thing could be Star Wars, but as it is, this particular series in itself is more than just a bit frustrating. For my taste those sets get infantilised and simplified way too much, often to a point where the original design is barely recognizable anymore. Everything is made to look harmless and playable, ultimately totally undermining the role the vehicles and set pieces play in the movies. I also find it infinitely hard to relate to things like Star Wars Rebels simply because it is a kids-oriented series with its own flaws and limitations. Throwing sets on the market based on this doesn’t do anything for me because I don’t know how they relate.

One could of course argue that the UCS sets should fill that void, but this doesn’t solve the issue, either. There are simply not enough of them, they are quite expensive and sometimes they are just remakes of previously existing sets, ultimately leading to that same dead-end of one day owning everything there is to own. I also feel that the limitations (specifically the non-existence of some specific elements for more advanced building techniques) in LEGO‘s parts repository don’t allow to provide the level of realism that I would expect from such a model.

You may ask: What about the other series? Personally I feel that those don’t cut it any longer, either. A good example for this is Technic. It’s almost tragic that a highly anticipated model like the Forest Harvester (42080) turned out as a flimsy, barely realistic toy. At the same time LEGO have made sets like the Bugatti Chiron (42083) so expensive, it puts them out of reach for many users. Not that this would particularly affect me – I never had much interest in it to begin with, but surely it’s a factor to consider. Similar observations can be made for Ninjago, City etc.. All too often I simply don’t find anything that would interest me thematically or that would be within my financial options.

All that has made me crave for some variation on the menu and Mega Bloks/ Mega Construx seems to fit that bill quite nicely, for a while at least. It’s not even that I would particularly consider myself a militarist (despite having had a keen interest in military aviation all my life), it’s really just that I wanted something fresh and explore something new (to me, anyway), be that different building techniques, differently looking models or for that matter just something cool-looking I can put on my limited shelf space.

Beyond my personal reasons what always bothers me is, that when it comes to LEGO‘s competitors, there is unfortunately rarely such a thing as an open discussion on the subject in certain communities. There’s a lot of false info being thrown around, the legal side of things being misinterpreted and ultimately often just plain badmouthing of LEGO‘s competitors. By crafting this series of articles I’m hoping to at least provide a somewhat broader view on the technical side of things and whether some of those alleged deficiencies and shortcomings even hold true.

Availability

A lot of the aforementioned issues come down to how present and prominent a brand is in a given market. You can’t form an educated opinion when you don’t even have the opportunity to obtain a specific product. Sadly, Mattel/ Mega are indeed not doing a great job here, especially beyond their home turf in the US and Canada.

Barring the occasional special promo run at some bigger store chains (with a limited selection of sets specifically ordered for these sales in limited numbers) there is no official, continuous distribution here in Germany for instance, so in order to even find sets you have to rely on small dealers on eBay or Amazon Marketplace that import these models on their own head. That being the case, you can spend hours searching for a model or to be more precise, any model.

Often it’s a case of “take it or leave it” since you don’t have any real choice. You may get lucky and find exactly the model you had set your sights on, but most of the time it will end up buying whatever comes up within your planned budget and roughly set parameters. You wanted a spaceship? Be thankful you got that tank that is missing from your collection, too!

So for what it’s worth: The buying experience is terrible due to Mega/ Mattel (seemingly?)not making any effort to proactively promote and distribute their products in these parts here. This short assessment doesn’t even cover exclusive/ limited/ special editions that only ever were available e.g. through the now deceased Toys’R’UsUS branch. You’d have to be a millionaire to even get your hands on some of those models when buying them from a collector.

There’s also a bit of a chicken vs. egg problem in that with such unreliable delivery chain and LEGO‘s predominance on certain markets purchase managers of big store chains/ online stores won’t be too inclined to sacrifice much (virtual) shelf space for presentation of Mega Construx/ Mega Bloks. As a result, those get even less attention from the wider public and you end up in this perfect causality loop where you can’t tell whether the sets sell badly because they’re not being advertised enough or if there’s no point in marketing them more aggressively because you don’t know how they will sell. Go, figure!

Pricing

Unfortunately gauging this aspect is a bit of a paradox in itself, given the conditions. Due to the unstable influx of fresh product there is no statistically reliable way for me to measure exact market prices. Everything is skewed and biased by the demand (or lack thereof) in a very limited market. Basing this on the official suggested retail prices e.g. for the US market is not much help, either, as even there the actual street prices seem to fluctuate quite a bit. The way the situation presents itself is essentially as follows:

There are affordable or even cheap sets, some of which are simply unattractive and thus tend to be around for a long time because not many people buy them. On the other hand there appear to be sets that are so high in demand that prices explode to crazy proportions, making them unattainable to a lot of users. This includes the already mentioned rare and exclusive items, generally seems to apply to larger sets with high parts counts somehow (possibly due to limited numbers being produced of those) and just as well sets that are apparently very well-designed and realistic, providing a very exact rendition of e.g. a vehicle in a game and thus appealing to collectors of paraphernalia around those games just as much as to the brick modeller.

There’s a lot of grey areas as well where you sometimes don’t know what to make of the whole affair. Sets that you feel would be rare and expensive are readily available in relatively large numbers and then at the same time the set next to it may be the whole opposite – it should be cheap and quite common, yet for reasons one can hardly understand it costs twice as much. That is to say the pricing often seems illogical and widely uneven.

In fairness, though, when compared directly to LEGO prices, Mega fare quite well. Most sets come in at around 30 percent cheaper than comparable LEGO sets with their base price right out of the gate and interestingly enough, the bigger the sets get in terms of parts count and actual physical size of the resulting model, the more favorable this ratio becomes. A 2000 pieces model for slightly above a hundred Euros? That’s something I have never heard of in the LEGO world even if you give credit to the fact that e.g. the Modular Buildings come pretty close to that with their parts numbers and standard pricing around 150 Euros. In any case, it’s all circumstantial of course due to the limitations I explained.

Themes and Subjects

Inherently the themes dealt with by LEGO‘s competitors (amongst other things)must of course be different and provide the necessary variation and diversion from the regular menu or else there wouldn’t be much point to it, would it? Exactly!

I’ve already hinted on the militaria side of things. Yes it is exactly what it sounds like – tanks, aircraft, helicopters, cannons, armored vehicles. Mega provide those primarily as licensed tie-ins to video game series like Call of Duty, Halo and Destiny. The sets themselves are not necessarily consistent in what specific edition of a game they represent (nor the factions within the games’ stories), so you might get a fictional futuristic vehicle from Modern Warfare one day and then the other day a WW II set harkening back to an earlier entry of the Call of Duty series. Naturally, whenever there is a new edition of one of those games you will also get topical sets specifically aiming to recreate scenarios from those latest incarnations.

Since I don’t play any of these games I can’t tell you more than which vehicles and stuff I like, but far be it from me to judge how realistic they are. For me it comes down to a certain level of elegance most of the time, so I tend to prefer aerial vehicles/ spaceships, anyway, though there certainly wouldn’t be anything wrong with a nice Humvee, a tank or similar.

The games are further complemented by a bit of the Assasin’s Creed and World of Warcraft, though it seems those series weren’t very successful and thus rather limited in terms of the number of sets or the sizes of the sets themselves. On and off there are additional sporadic issues of smaller model series. From Alien to the Terminator movies there have been a few of them, but they are so limited, I haven’t really bothered to research their history that much and from what I can gather, it’s probably nothing that would interest me that much, anyway.

There is another kind of sets completely opposite those “dark” subjects and those include for instance some Star Trek, Pokémon or the Despicable Me/ Minions movies. While it wasn’t my original intention to ever get some of those sets, being that colorful & fluffy is what LEGO has in abundance already, I’ve come to appreciate some of those models since. They are different enough to still warrant a look and on a selective basis can truly add to your collection.

In all of this the recurring them is that most sets are based on licensed themes, which begs the question whether there are actually original, own creations. That’s a question that could again be answered with a firm “Maybe?!”. The fact of the matter is that there are series like American Girl, the basic brick sets or the collector-oriented ProBuilder, but they are very sparsely populated with not many new sets coming out. In the past ProBuilder also used to be very military-centric just as well, so there was a bit of redundancy and oversaturation on those subjects. Currently there only are a handful of announcements on the Mega Construx website, so clearly things are only moving very slowly.

Many people within the Mega communities perceive this as ongoing friction and hiccups of integration in the Mattel conglomerate and it’s uncertain if and when this will ever smooth out again. It seems when everything was just called Mega Bloks they had a good run but ever since the started separating the product lines (and presumably teams) into the kids-oriented Mega Bloks and the more advanced Mega Construx there have been more than just a few bumps in the road. One can only hope that this situation will improve soon.

An aspect one mustn’t underestimate is that the choice of subjects and availability is also driven by Mega‘s own flavor of minifigures. Unlike LEGO minifigures they are much more “toy soldiers” in the traditional sense and due to the differences warrant a deeper look in one of the follow-up articles to this one.

Parting Shot

Introductory articles are of course always a bit ponderous and long-winded, so congratulations if you’ve made it to the end even if you just glossed over my writing. I promise the next article will be much more interesting as we are going to get to the meat of it all and will evaluate things like parts quality, specific building techniques, potential issues and caveats and a million other details, including tons of pictures to illustrate those points. So keep an eye out when the next part pops up here…