The failure of Guitar Hero: Van Halen is one of poor timing.
Guitar Hero: Van Halen is an awful lot like Guitar Hero: Metallica, a game that revitalized my own interest in rhythm games featuring plastic instruments after the failure that was Guitar Hero World Tour. Most of this was thanks to the presence of songs that were actually fun to play, particularly if your instrument of choice was a guitar. “Creeping Death”, “Fade to Black”, even recent stuff like “Fuel” . . . these are the kinds of songs that allow the player to leap beyond the “plastic toy” barrier and believe, if only peripherally, that true rock stardom is only a few colored buttons and clicks away.
The Van Halen iteration of Guitar Hero is very much the same, in that the songs that populate the game are really quite fun to play, even if much of the badassery that Metallica brings to the table is replaced by kitsch when you’re playing Van Halen songs. Songs like “Panama”, “Jump”, and Roy Orbison cover “Pretty Woman” all have the classic formula combining a complex-but-doable riff with a nutty guitar solo, and while grabbing five stars on these songs isn’t all that hard, you’ll still feel pretty impressed with yourself when you find your way through them. As was the case with Metallica, drumming and vocals feel largely like afterthoughts, but the game is called Guitar Hero, so this can be forgiven as well.
What can’t be forgiven is that Guitar Hero: Metallica came out before Guitar Hero 5, and Guitar Hero: Van Halen came out after Guitar Hero 5. A lot’s changed in the time between the release of Metallica and that of Van Halen, a lot that makes the limitations prevalent throughout Van Halen an awful lot more difficult to swallow.
Guitar Hero 5 was a great game, just about as innovative as a game involving plastic guitars, drums, and microphones could possibly be at this point. It allowed you to play as four of any instrument, it allowed for dropping in and dropping out of games at any time, it had more multiplayer modes than a Guitar Hero player could ever need, it retained GHStudio, it hopped up the graphics engine to heighten the level of eye-pleasing absurdity, and it added song-specific challenges for every single song in the game for the sake of giving the player more stuff to do. It was an embarrassment of riches in the rhythm genre, largely overlooked amongst the hype of The Beatles: Rock Band and grumbles of “good god, another Guitar Hero game”.
To release a Guitar Hero game after Guitar Hero 5 and pretend that all of the new bells and whistles of that game never existed is a massive mistake. Playing a new Guitar Hero product without the ability to, say, have four people in the same room flailing about while trying to play Eddie’s solo piece “Eruption” at the same time, or to have four people screaming the chorus to “Panama” and making it sound just as epic in a living room as it did on the original LP, is a mistake. To revert our sole focus to the score that we achieve in a song — rather than a goal of, say, nailing all the synth parts in “Jump” or pulling off a 30-phrase vocal streak in “Running with the Devil” — is a mistake. Defend it all you want by saying that it was created prior to the availability of the Guitar Hero 5 engine and codebase, but the fact that it was released after Guitar Hero 5 remains. If nothing else, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits could have waited another year if they really wanted to push Van Halen out into the market before Guitar Hero 5 went and ruined it before it came out.
The other issue of timing here has less to do with the game and more to do with the band: The Van Halen we remember is the one from the early ’80s, with the long hair and the spandex and the splits and the Michael Anthony. And, to be fair, that’s the Van Halen we hear — every Van Halen song here is from the David Lee Roth era of Van Halen’s recorded output. Still, with the classic audio comes visuals featuring the Van Halen of today, complete with the short haircuts, understated clothing style, and Wolfgang. I have nothing against Wolfgang Van Halen — I’m sure he’s a swell kid, and he’s a fine bass player — but to see him walking around the stage as the bassist to studio tracks at least seven years his elder offers a constant sense of temporal displacement. So does seeing the digitized version of 55-year-old David Lee Roth, offering hand motions making the metaphorical connotations of “I brought my…PENCIL” in “Hot for Teacher” all too obvious. In 1984, he was being mischievous. In 2009, it’s kind of, uh, skeevy.
A true raison d’être is hard to find, though the most impressive moments are the Eddie-only guitar solo pieces, little mini-songs that even masters of the previous games will have trouble deciphering. “Eruption” and “Spanish Fly” are a blast to try to tear through, and their short run times actually make them feel slightly manageable, even if five stars on Expert seems like a distant dream. Also included is “Cathedral”, a lovely (and fun) finger workout that’ll impress your friends just fine if that’s your thing.
The saturation of the market with Guitar Hero-branded product is a topic often discussed and lamented among those who look back at Guitar Hero II as the high water mark of the series, though until this point, such chatter has largely come off as geezers lamenting the long-gone good old days for no reason other than that they were younger and more impressionable then. The pack-in status and juuuuust-before-Christmas (and post-Guitar Hero 5) retail release of Guitar Hero: Van Halen seems to indicate, however, that Activision simply didn’t know what to do with this Guitar Hero game they had lying around. It’s the first time that the glut of Guitar Hero product has shoved a release into a precarious position through no fault of its own, though its own faults are numerous as well.
Guitar Hero: Van Halen is game out of time. It is neither a stopgap nor a true showcase of the band it purports to feature. It is, ultimately, the least essential of the Guitar Hero releases so far.