I Visited the Dark Side, So You Don’t Have To

I’ve strayed. I thought I had learned my lesson in grade school when I picked up a cool Tente space truck. Or maybe in middle school when I got some Tyco Super Blocks as a present. I certainly “knew” that the clone bricks just aren’t worth it—sure, you might get some cool shapes you can’t find in Lego, but at what cost?

I’d keep seeing these Mega Bloks Halo sets, with their many different curves and gorgeous shimmery purples. And there was that big puzzle-piece dome. Of course I knew I shouldn’t. But Nnenn did. And then I saw this Silent Running-esque ship using the Mega Bloks domes. And Jang (of Jangbricks) started buying and reviewing Mega Bloks sets. And I started looking a little too closely when I was in the store. I’d pick a box up, turn it over and check out its pieces. Look at the little window where you could see some actual pieces shimmering. 

And then one day I thought “well, it can’t hurt to look”, and checked a price. 

Wha?! Then I checked another, and another. These are more expensive than Legos! Maybe it’s just the Halo licensed sets? So I looked at some others: Call of Duty, Hot Wheels, Barbie, Skylanders—everything I looked at was considerably more than most Lego sets, even the licensed ones. Here I was, seeing ~500 pieces for $70. And only 3 or 4 big, specialized pieces. (Lego typically runs under $0.10/piece for the non-licensed sets, sometimes as low as $0.075 or so, and usually just a bit over $0.10 for the licensed sets.) Maybe it’s just the licensed sets, but since the local Toys R Us and Target both only have licensed Mega Bloks lines, I wouldn’t know. 

So whatever I’m getting, “saving money” isn’t it. 

Which left me really wondering what the appeal is. Some new pieces and/or colors, I guess. Because what I’d always heard, is that the quality is lower—but that they’re also cheaper, so you get what you pay for. Based on Jangbricks’ reviews, and looking at builds on Flickr, it sounded like the quality issue may have improved, and those are some pretty colors, so when I saw a couple sets on sale, I decided to give them a try. I got basically what I expected: some new colors, some interesting pieces, and lower manufacturing standards. What I didn’t expect was the lower packaging standards: both sets had tons of extra pieces (2-3 dozen pieces in most of the sets, even the ~200-piece set), and one was missing a couple. Still, there were a small number of really awesome pieces with no Lego equivalent, and I thought it would be fun to get enough of the new purples to be useful, and I found some sets on steep discounts (50%+) online, so I bought a few more. I now have half a dozen Mega Bloks Halo sets, ranging from a hundred or so pieces to nearly 600, and I believe spanning about 3 years in original release dates. 

I don’t think I’ll be buying any more Mega Bloks in the future, and I’ll share with you why. 

First and most important is the workmanship. They’re just not very well made. Lego has very consistent clutch power, due to precise manufacturing tolerances and some experimentation and improvements in the dimensions, materials, and/or designs of various parts. With the exception of a run of white pieces for a while in the early 2000s, and the very occasional other problem, Lego from any time in the last 40+ years will stick equally well, and you can take pretty much any piece and stick it to pretty much any other piece, and it will line up precisely and hold firmly. But it will also come apart if you apply a modest amount of force in the correct direction. The Mega Bloks I have vary tremendously. Within a single box there will be pieces that only just barely hold and pieces that I broke nails trying to get apart. I’ve been using Lego for nearly 40 years, and didn’t have a brick separator or other tool (besides other Lego pieces) until maybe a decade ago, so I’ve long since learned how to get Lego together and apart without trouble. 

As for together, I had a hard time getting large contact surfaces (like two large plates) to mesh consistently, without areas where the plates gapped a little. And many of the plates seemed to want to be not quite flat, and it was only the “averaging” of variances in multiple plates stacked together that pulled them all into flatness. And even then it took a lot of force, and a lot of massaging. And in some cases the pieces continued to want to spring back and pull apart, and in other cases the end result was decidedly warped. Note how the two tails on the Covenant Seraph aren’t quite parallel. 

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Blocks were also hard to get on sometimes. In particular, sometimes two blocks would be off-center in opposite directions, such that they couldn’t be placed next to each other without giving one of them a 180° turn. But the biggest problem is that Mega Bloks don’t really “snap” the way that Legos do. Most of the pieces didn’t have a definitive point at which they were on, they were just friction fits. They would slide on as far as they could, but they would also stick almost as tightly when partially attached. I could really only tell when pieces were fully on by looking, and sometimes that last fraction of a millimeter took a lot of force. This lack of snap also means that fully engaged pieces want to push apart again due to the springiness of the plastic. Though, in fairness, I really only noticed this problem with large plates with significant overlap. And I don’t think anything is going to spontaneously disassemble, it might just develop a few unseemly gaps. 

They do come in some pretty colors, but those colors don’t match anything in Lego, at least in the sets I got: even the white was a different white. The only exceptions were black and yellow, which were pretty good color matches. So you’re augmenting your collection, but you won’t be able to mix them into a build indiscriminately. In my case, that was ok: I was buying these specifically for new colors, and the fact that the Mega Bloks dark gray doesn’t match either Lego dark gray is a minor annoyance. 

https://farm3.staticflickr.com/2904/14592039275_6f267b9072.jpg

(Lego, Mega Bloks, Lego, Mega Bloks, Mega Bloks, Lego, Lego;

Lego, Mega Bloks, Lego)

But speaking of colors, it is interesting to me that they have created 4 different purples, only one of which is a distinctly different hue than the others. I think some of this is time: some preliminary research seems to indicate these sets span about 3 years, and the shimmery pearlite purple is being advertised as a new color. So it seems like they’ve been trying new colors almost annually, either to better approximate what you see on the screen or to match different things on the screen. Or maybe it’s pure marketing: new year, new color, new sales. A couple of them might be interesting complements for Lego colors.  

Here’s a look at 3 of the sets, trying to give a sense of the 4 purples in actual use:

https://farm6.staticflickr.com/5496/14405463499_2269c5f4dc.jpg

In particular, here’s a good look at that middle one showing the depth:

https://farm6.staticflickr.com/5521/14405394950_d242d65590.jpg

and a better shot of the bluish purple to show that it really is purple, even though the red is hard to capture in photos:

https://farm4.staticflickr.com/3896/14612123683_d2778ab8dd.jpg

If the colors don’t entice you, maybe the pieces will. And, let me tell you, they’ve got a lot of interesting pieces. First of all, there are all those curves. 

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It’s an interesting design choice, having so many close-but-not-quite curves. There are only two pairs of all those slopes that match, and there are more. Here’s a mix of Lego and Mega Bloks to compare: 

https://farm6.staticflickr.com/5594/14591370332_d46c3e2210.jpg

(Lego, Mega Bloks; Lego, Mega Bloks; Mega Bloks, Lego; Lego, Mega Bloks, Lego)

The first two pairs match, but nothing else does—and the slopes in this picture that aren’t in the other pictures don’t match any of them, either. And look, here’s some more: 

https://farm3.staticflickr.com/2913/14405405500_128cb6ea2d.jpg

(that’s all Mega Bloks except the green piece)

Note how even the 1 x 2 x 2/3 slope and the 1 x 4 slope on the right don’t quite match slope. So, again, lots of minor variations. In some ways, this is awesome: it provides options and helps with subtle variations and curved surfaces. But it also seems like needless variation, and I can’t tell whether it’s in service of this purpose, or a cover for poor design that doesn’t know how to make do with fewer variations.

Now here are a few other slopes, which are basically either the equivalent of a Lego piece, or something completely new that really doesn’t have anything even close in the Lego world.

https://farm3.staticflickr.com/2909/14405628597_f88d48c81c.jpg

(the purple pieces are Mega Bloks, the others aren’t)

This shows us some interesting things. Mega Bloks has a lot more large and long and thin slopes, both straight and curved. That’s a 1 x 12 slope, and their equivalent to a 1×4 slope has no studs so it’s a bit of a shallower slope. They also like to have thinner edges than the Lego Group considers advisable. 


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Both of those roof slopes are so thin at the front edge that they can’t sit over studs. I think Lego avoids this about equally for compatibility—more and more of the pieces that used to not fit over studs have been modified so that they can (like wing pieces that now have stud notches on the diagonal edge)—and durability (really thin bits are more fragile), with maybe a touch of safety (much like the long-standing worries about shooting parts). This isn’t a purely theoretical concern: the very thin clips that hold the dome pieces together were particularly susceptible. Of the 10 dome pieces (5 from each of 2 sets), each with 3 clips, I don’t think there was a single one where all 3 clips were perfectly formed, and probably half of them had at least one clip that was malformed or thin enough that I’m nervous to clip (as opposed to slide) a bar into it. And none of the pieces perfectly line up with the center hub. 

 As yet another example of proliferation, check out these inverted slopes:

https://farm4.staticflickr.com/3870/14569024116_b8b2371865.jpg

They also have regular 2 x 2 and 1 x 2 (and 1 x 3 and 2 x 3) inverted slopes, so these are basically just specialized pieces that all do approximately the same thing. There’s a 1 x 2 x 1 45° inverted slope that’s notched to go under stuff, and then a 2 x 2 x 2/3 inverted slope of a slightly different angle, and then a 1 x 3 x 2/3 inverted slope that matches that angle but hangs down to hide the plate it’s sitting on. Useful? Sure. But necessary? I dunno. They give us 3 options to do basically the same thing—and that’s in addition to regular inverted slopes. Similarly, there is a 2 x 2 – 2 x 2 and a 2 x 1 – 2 x 2 bracket. I guess the former gives a little bit sturdier connection, but overall it seems redundant. And I have 3 different 2/3rds-high bricks with axle pegs sticking out of them (in addition to a 2 x 1 brick with a high-friction peg):

https://farm4.staticflickr.com/3871/14588761111_966b9695a2.jpg

Note that the purple one is designed to minimize rotation. It doesn’t have a slot cut into it, and it also doesn’t have a lip on the end, so parts slide on rather than snapping on.

And here’s a plate with a bar sticking out from it, instead of parallel to the end. That’s awesome! So why do they have two versions, one with a stop and one without? Couldn’t the one without do everything the one with a stop does?

https://farm4.staticflickr.com/3891/14588760541_951007b662.jpg

I do wonder if this proliferation of pieces is a sign of Mega Bloks moving in an unsustainable direction. Too many specialized pieces, many used in just one set, was a large part of what almost killed Lego about a decade ago. In addition to the proliferation of similar-but-not-quite-the-same-curvature curves, the many similar-but-not-the-same-colors, and the many different brackets and slopes, there are a lot of little pins and clips, some very similar in function, and a fair number of highly specialized pieces. The cockpit canopy of the Covenant Seraph is the most extreme example, but the sliding doors for the Covenant Wraith are almost as specialized—they’re only going to work placed exactly 4 studs apart, and only for an opening the right number of studs long, and curved at at least one end.

https://farm3.staticflickr.com/2916/14405389880_35f6a0d826.jpg

Yep, that entire canopy is one big piece, painted with the dark red, metallic grey and bright blue bits, and with the only attachment point being a 2L horizontal bar on the underside.

https://farm3.staticflickr.com/2898/14405468248_e9c5ca9b3f.jpg

The little gray crossbar can be repositioned to change how far down the arms can pivot.

But along the way, they also have some other interesting pieces that aren’t quite so specialized. Check out this 4 x 4 x 5 cylinder, with a peg hole in the bottom so it can basically be a one-piece giant turntable. The holes in the rim (and the grooves in the side) fit a standard bar, and there’s a matching 6 x 6 plate with a round hole in it for the cylinder to sit in. So, while specialized, it can be used in several different ways, and is a relatively versatile piece.

https://farm4.staticflickr.com/3880/14405467718_a1f60a37e7.jpg

https://farm6.staticflickr.com/5520/14590184164_253e6340d9.jpg

Though, again with the thinness: I’m dubious about the durability of that quarter-circle plate and tile in a kid’s hands. But still, 1 x 5 plates are potentially very useful, just as Lego finally introduced 7L & 9L axles after many years of only even lengths, and then 3L, and then 5L. And that’s a nice way to do a 2x2x2 inverted slope, a piece that Lego doesn’t have. And quarter circle tiles are cool, whether or not they’re durable. And check out the slopes with studs, which make building at angles a breeze: 

https://farm3.staticflickr.com/2910/14405635227_2c0aa273a1.jpg

The two shallower ones share the same angle, and make this possible:

https://farm4.staticflickr.com/3921/14612116513_3874a14d05.jpg

While you can do this with hinges in Lego, this is really cool, and easier to make sturdy. 

Now lets look at some pieces that are almost the same as Lego pieces, and check out the differences.

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Hey, some new wing-type pieces! That smallest one is basically the same angle as the Lego 4 x 8 wing (the one with a notched corner), though with studs in slightly different places. However, one of the things that I love about the changes Lego has made in their wing pieces is having more pieces with the same angle to them. For whatever reason, they’ve chosen to partly implement that—the 4 x 10 wing and the 5 x 14 have the same slope, but not the 4 x 8:

https://farm3.staticflickr.com/2907/14405446888_6791a1002e.jpg

I’m not sure which is better. Everything the same angle gives you more pieces that work together and line up, but everything with different angles gives you options for creating interesting transitions and pseudo-curves and so on. And, of course, Lego still has a bunch of different wing/wedge angles, so this isn’t a huge difference. 

https://farm6.staticflickr.com/5544/14590182534_6204d68b86.jpg

Unlike most Lego brackets these days, the part with the sideways studs is a full plate thick. (The Lego 2 x 2 – 2 x 2 bracket is the only real exception, and it dates back to ’79 and doesn’t see much use these days.) So while the Lego brackets are a half plate thick, these are all a full plate thick, and designed with a gap behind them so that they can fit studs. The two decisions have different advantages. The Lego brackets mean that if you add 2 plates, you have one stud’s thickness, whereas with the Mega Blok brackets you need to add 4 plates, which gets you to 2 studs’ thickness. But the Mega Bloks brackets mean that you can backfill around/behind a bracket with regular plates, without having to use yet more brackets just for that reason alone. 

Back to the Mega Bloks equivalent of technic bricks. This is another case where they made a slightly different choice than Lego did. In this case, I think it’s a clearly poorer choice: The holes/pins are set a little bit higher on the blocks, so they’re not at the same height as the brackets or bricks with studs on the side. It also means they’re not quite compatible with technic bricks, and I don’t see any advantage—it’s not enough higher to enable any different connections or change clearances below, and it must cut into clearances above. 

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https://farm6.staticflickr.com/5593/14588762351_9562c142bf.jpg

And here are some relatively common pieces, just to show the differences. The 1 x 3 inverted slope is hollow for all 3 studs, which means that it’s not hollow underneath. The jumper plate has a hole through the center stud, so it gives up the connection of a stud in the middle underneath, but gains the ability to be on a bar or antenna from either direction, or run right through it. And the 1 x 4 brick with studs on the sides (and the 1 x 2 and 1 x 1) have holes on the side opposite the studs, and not only the studs on the side but the studs on the top are also hollow so you can jam bars through them. These are interesting decisions that make the part a little more versatile, though at the cost that it’s not plain on one side. 

I’ve got pictures of some other interest parts up on Flickr—click on any of the images in this post to take you to the album—but I can’t not mention the piece that every AFOL has been wanting forever: the plate with studs on both sides. They’ve got them at least in 2 x 2 and 1 x 2.

https://farm6.staticflickr.com/5521/14405411160_bd12bc1d3b.jpg

This lets Mega Bloks get away with a lot fewer inverted slopes, it looks like, and I’m not sure they have any inverted curved slopes. 

The other thing to talk about is the presentation. As I’ve already mentioned, they’re less consistent with providing exactly the right pieces. But contrary to some other reports, I was short exactly 1 piece out of 9 sets (a total of ~1500 pieces)—still more than is acceptable, but not an epidemic. Mostly, the “problem” was excess pieces. The plans are very different in style. They all had callouts with the parts used, even the smallest sets. Each step would show the pieces that are going to be added, arranged as they would be, but not yet attached. The thing you are build onto has the studs where these pieces are going to attach colored, with a different color for each piece so you can definitely see where things line up. As murky as Lego plans have gotten in the last 5-7 years, the Mega Bloks plans are much murkier, so this stilt of instructions is almost necessary. I would be able to pick out where new pieces are if the plans were done in Lego style, but picking out which piece went where might be difficult. For certain sorts of building, this is actually much easier than the Lego style of plans, and this style coupled with clearer printing would be really nice. Taken as a whole, I’d say it’s neither better nor worse than Lego plans, just different.

Also, given the poor manufacturing quality and the seeming lack of planning in the proliferation of similar pieces, I was pleasantly surprised by the sophistication of the builds. The largest set I have, the Covenant Seraph, has large chunks built sideways, in 2 different directions which interlock and intersect with the regular studs-on-top building of the rest of it. It also did a good job of being sturdy without just being solid blocks all the way through. They put some gaps in to save pieces, but more importantly so that it’s easier to get the pieces together and later apart. They were smart enough to use 6 2 x 6 plates rather than a 6 x 12, because nearly the entire surface was attached and it would’ve been a real pain to get a 6 x 12 evenly attached, even with Lego. 

So, I’m satisfied with my purchases, given the steep discounts, and I got about what I expected: pretty colors, fun shapes, but poor workmanship. OK at a discount but not at full price, and doesn’t make me want to get more. Now you can better judge for yourself whether adding some Mega Bloks to your Lego collection would be worthwhile. 

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2 comments on “I Visited the Dark Side, So You Don’t Have To

  1. Mantisking says:

    This is an excellent look at the differences between Mega Bloks and Lego parts. I should do something similar for Kre-O.

  2. jvol says:

    thank you, very useful write up and pics.. (tho i have no plans to acquire any of these).

    It seems that, if nothing else, Mega-blox is serving some purpose as experiment, and giving us a few tangible things to rally around to push Lego into developing. Hopefully they are listening.

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