“Why should LEGO Ninjago end?” This pestering question has been vaguely on my mind for quite some time, and coupled with other personal malcontent with the LEGO Group’s current direction, it was only a matter of time before the thoughts found an outlet. Most fortuitously, my paths crossed with another LEGO fan – the highly passionate and knowledgeable LegoDavid.
Readers will find that the value of original LEGO themes are taken quite seriously around here; and LegoDavid has elected to shed some light on his own understanding of the matter. He suggests that LEGO’s Ninjago theme has overstayed its welcome in numerous ways, as he explains in his article below. What does this entail for the LEGO Group?
Why Ninjago Needs to End
Oh, Ninjago. When this completely unremarkable LEGO theme about a team of teenage ninjas that ride in oversized vehicles and fight cliché villains (huh, where have I seen that concept before?) first hit toy shelves in the summer of 2011, it took the world completely by storm. Kids all around the western world where playing with the toys and watching the TV Show as it premiered on Cartoon Network for the first time.
Not since the days of Bionicle, over a decade prior, had LEGO experienced a success quite like it. The success was so huge, that when it came time to retire the line in 2013, there was such a big backlash from the fans of the series that caused LEGO to change their mind at the last moment.
Ever since, Ninjago has become undeniably the biggest LEGO franchise of all time, receiving brand new waves of sets and new seasons of the show every single year, and even going as far as receiving its own theatrically released movie.
But now, over 10 years later… I think I can safely say that I am so goddam sick of it.
First off, I would like to clarify that I am speaking from the position of someone who grew up with this theme, just like all of you. I have watched all the seasons of the show, despite not really caring about them that much, and I think everything that I am about to say is completely valid, from the perspective of someone who actually has a good understanding of what the theme is all about. I am not just some outside observer… I used to be fan, just like all of you.
But without further redo, let me get into why I think this theme has been overhyped all along, that didn’t really deserve as much success as it got. This is why… Ninjago is Garbage.
Why Ninjago Needs to End, Part 1: The Show is Commercialized
Let’s admit it, despite the physical toys being the core of any LEGO theme, the TV Series is the reason this theme has become so popular. Without it, I am willing to bet that nobody would have still cared about it by the time it was supposed to end in 2013.
Honestly, as much as I quite enjoyed some of the earlier seasons, man, it got old really fast. The same group of characters, always go on the same types of adventures against the same types of villains. There is no denying that the series has become painfully formulaic, and not in good way.
Other shows which follow a similar format at least have some sort of character growth or progression throughout their run, but with Ninjago, despite being around for ten years, the characters have still remained pretty much the same as the first time we’ve met them.
Other themes, such as Bionicle, have done an excellent job of taking care of this issue, by introducing a new set of protagonists every 2-3 years, while still keeping the older characters around in the background.
With Ninjago, on the other hand, the writers have made no efforts to try to introduce a new set of heroes, or not even at least make the current protagonists older in order to showcase how they have grown as characters.
On top of all that, it seems like the story, despite running for so long, never really amounts to anything. Typically, any big, epic story spanning multiple TV seasons or volumes of books always constantly builds up to some big, epic climax or conclusion. But with Ninjago, once again, you get none of that.
You can skip multiple seasons, and still not miss much. They have sort of tried that with Season 2, and once again with Season 10, but because the series really had to continue, those “climaxes” felt really rushed and emotionally unsatisfying, because the writers are always pressured to keep pumping out more seasons, because LEGO needs to continue selling toys.
By contrast, Bionicle, which had a similar run of 10 years, had a big, epic plot twist planned all along, hinted at all throughout the series, but never fully revealed until close to the series end. This really encouraged fans to stick around way passed their toy phases, always curious about where the story might go next.
But with Ninjago, there is virtually nothing to keep you engaged for more than a few seasons at most.
But by far, one of the show’s biggest problems with the show are the inconsistent tonal shifts and not maturing with its audience. If you really insist on making a “Villain of the week” type series, so be it, but stick to it. But despite that, the show keeps trying to become slightly more mature from time to time, particularly in the seasons 8-10 (also known as the “Oni Trilogy”), but the tones keep shifting back and forth quicker than you can blink.
Every time a season tries to be slightly more mature and serious with its tone, it is immediately followed by a super childish and immature one. Other series, such as Avatar: The Last Airbender, or Star Wars: The Clone Wars have pretty much excelled at this, and rightfully got themselves dedicated fan bases, as the show matured at the same time with them.
But Ninjago has none of that. It is often quite hard to tell who even is the target audience. Everyone who got into Ninjago back when it first released in 2011 must be close to the age of 18 by now. Yet with the past few seasons, it feels like we’ve sunk all the way back to the Pilot Season.
So with all that in mind, I honestly fail to see why this show would hold any meaningful value for anyone above the age of 12 (and believe me, I’ve seen kids who have grown out of it even earlier than that). As much as there still are quite a few older folks who still watch this show, I bet most of them do more so because of nostalgia’s sake rather than because they genuinely think it is a good show.
Part 2: Set Design is a Thematic Mess
Well, if the show isn’t that great, then at least the sets should be cool enough, right?
If anything, I’d argue that the sets are probably the weakest aspect of the entire theme.
As much as I don’t understand the show, at least some people have still remained attached to it. But let’s be fair, the sets feel so low-effort and repetitive, that you would have a hard time justifying buying more than one or two sets from each wave at most.
All the line keeps giving us is the exact same hero bikes, jets, mechs, and cars over and over again with nothing to make them stand out. There are the occasional gems, of course, such as some of the dragons and temples, but even those tend to get stale very fast.
And the worst part is: it hasn’t always been this way.
Arguably, the villains that our heroes fight in each new wave have always been one of the main attractions of each new wave, yet they barely get any sets to back them up, unlike the heroes which constantly get the same stale vehicles spammed over and over again.
When the line first debuted in 2011, it actually offered a very balanced lineup, giving the oversized vehicles to the villains, and the dragons to the heroes. In my opinion, this created a very sharp contrast that really helped the theme stand out at the time. It created a real sense of danger, that the Skullkin army was this well-organized, supernatural force, which the heroes stand no chance against on their own, but can defeat if they combine their powers together. This, in my opinion, was the best thing about the original Ninjago wave, and part of the reason why it still remains my personal favorite wave of Ninjago to this day.
But sadly, this big selling point of the theme was quickly lost as the second year rolled around, and our heroes were suddenly overpowered, each receiving their own gigantic vehicle, capable of instantly wiping out the Serpentine army which was introduced that year.
The hero vehicles sold so well, that they instantly became the template of all the future Ninjago waves to follow it, while the villain forces would become increasingly weaker in their arsenal with each passing wave.
Another key component of the original wave that was eventually lost was the spinners. Despite being designed simply as a gimmick, the spinner toys actually played a key role in the success of the first wave, hitting exactly at the right time, when the Beyblade craze was at its peak.
Combine that with the fact that the spinners had a well thought out card game behind them, and they were a cheap way to get your favorite characters, and you are pretty much set for success.
But, they too also saw a reduced presence in the second wave, and by the time the third wave hit, they were already completely gone. Though we still saw a few attempts to replicate the success of the spinners in later waves, such as with the Airjitzu Flyers, those didn’t have any card games whatsoever, and never quite reached the same heights, being seen as nothing more than what they actually were… just gimmicks.
And so, everything that made the original wave something special, was instantly thrown out the window, in exchange for the lowest common denominator of continually spamming the exact same hero vehicles over and over again, a trend which continues to this day.
By this point in time, the line has been so oversaturated, that LEGO are just simply dumping all their ideas that could have become their own separate themes into the Ninjago IP.
Steampunk Pirates? Put them in Ninjago.
A videogame world? Put it in Ninjago.
A DnD-style fantasy adventure? Put it into Ninjago.
An underwater adventure? Yes, every idea they could possibly think of always needs to be put into Ninjago.
When you think about it, none of those ideas even make sense in the context of what Ninjago originally was. Despite being heavily fantasized, the original Ninjago wave still retained a distinct Feudal Japan feel (particularly in the area of the Box Art design) but this was also thrown out, in exchange to reducing the line’s concept to simply being Ninjas vs everything.
At this point, there is next to nothing about this theme that is even related to actual ninjas.
Part 3: Ninjago’s Negative Impact on LEGO
For all intents and purposes, Ninjago was a concept that was explicitly intended for a three-year run, but somehow got extended into a full decade. And as it turns out, this not only affected the quality of the Ninjago theme itself, but also all the other original themes that LEGO would release afterwards.
Ever since the success of Ninjago, one-off classic original themes, which were prevalent throughout the late 2000’s, suddenly started to fade away.
As Ninjago started dominating the market, Castle and Space both gave their last breath in 2013. One-off original themes, such as Pharaoh’s Quest and Monster Fighters, became increasingly scarce.
And perhaps worst of all, the big original themes that were supposed to come out following Ninjago’s end saw their budgets cut in half, with Bionicle G2’s marketing being close to nonexistent, and Legends of Chima getting the same wave repeated twice.
On top of that, seeing how profitable the Ninjago formula was, every bigger original theme that has come out over the past decade has kept desperately trying to emulate Ninjago’s success, by incorporating the exact same stale design philosophy of releasing dozens upon dozens of bikes, mechs, jets, and cars, without even understanding the true reason why Ninjago was succeeding with those designs in the first place.
Both Legends of Chima and Nexo Knights had loads of potential, with sets that were arguably superior to what Ninjago was getting at the time, but due to the subpar quality of their respective TV Shows, both themes failed to find themselves an audience.
And Monkie Kid, LEGO’s most recent attempt at reaching a new audience with this formula, doesn’t seem to have been particularly successful so far either.
Why Ninjago Needs to End, Part 4: Concluding Thoughts on the Future
Ultimately, it seems like Ninjago has ended up becoming a victim of its own success, as the increasingly corporate LEGO Group turned it into one of their biggest cash cows.
With an increasingly mediocre TV Series, uninspired set designs, and oversaturated concept, I think it is about time to pull the plug on this theme. Its presence has not only limited the success of other original themes, but has also introduced LEGO to a bland formula that does nothing but make all of their original offerings look way too similar to each other.
But despite all of that, the theme still continues to enjoy success, with a dedicated community of young viewers that still remain attached to the characters.
As much as I admire this achievement, I think it is about time we incorporate the resources given to Ninjago into other themes. If just a decent TV Series was all it took to turn a generally half-baked concept into LEGO’s most successful original theme, then just imagine what we could be getting if LEGO came up with a much more unique concept, such as Bionicle, and gave it an actual, legitimately great TV Series. Imagine what the result could be.
As they say, the only limit is your imagination.
But, sadly, as long as Ninjago continues to make money, we probably won’t be seeing LEGO allocate any proper resources to new big ideas. Because, like most corporations do those days, their goal isn’t to make quality storytelling, but to engineer a money-making franchise.
You can find LegoDavid’s LEGO MOCs on Instagram.
To read TALM’s thoughts on this subject, check out this post.