Trombone Champ, the musical computer game, has received more than 20,000 downloads since it was released last week, and gameplay videos have rippled through social media, featuring beloved songs ruined by terrible trombone playing.
The game is like Guitar Hero, but with your mouse acting as a trombone. You move it up and down to simulate the slide, and click to blow the horn. Your goal is to play along with such trombone classics as Beethoven’s Fifth, Hava Nagila and Take Me Out to the Ballgame.
The game is very much in on the joke – in fact, “it’s a joke first and a game second”, says its creator, Dan Vecchitto, who is “surprised and happy” at the flood of enthusiasm. “I don’t know why there’s not more comedy in games, because games can be so funny.”
It’s also very difficult. It’s tougher than it sounds to align your cursor with the notation flying across the screen, especially since you can’t just hold the mouse button down indefinitely – that will result in your character huffing and puffing, out of breath. The game rates you on an A-F scale, and I couldn’t manage better than a C. My virtual trombone playing was reminiscent of listening to a third-grader practice for a recital, all honks and squawks and tuneless pitches ruining an otherwise flawless backing track. The utter joy of the game is in how silly that sounds.
The whole thing is framed with a Zelda-esque storyline: when you begin, you’re informed by an important-sounding voice: “One day you will rend the very fabric that binds this land … but until that day comes, you must toot. Toot your trombone, brave soul, and you may yet become the Trombone Champ.” There’s also a mysterious “baboon” mode that rewards deeper investment in the game – baboon is a “naturally funny word”, Vecchitto says – and legends of a “demon” that players can summon.
Vecchitto, 38, isn’t a trombone player himself, though he is a musician. Instead, the idea for the game came after he was struck by a mental image of an arcade-game cabinet featuring a rubber trombone, where people would “flail around” trying to make music, “and it would always sound bad”. Later, he decided to emulate the trombone’s movements with a mouse.
He made the game largely on his own, with his wife, Jackie Vecchitto, contributing art, and one of his favorite musicians, Max Tundra, adding a musical track (most of the music is public domain material). He thought the project would take six months; instead, it took four years – though that included working around his day job as a UX/UI web designer, “and then of course Covid slows that down too. Half of 2020 was a wash.”
As he worked, “I was kind of concerned that other people wouldn’t get it,” he said. It seemed to him “it would be kind of hard to sell a game if the concept is: you can’t do it well”.
He “definitely didn’t expect a breakout” success. Before Trombone Champ, the Vecchittos’ Holy Wow Studios had made a few games that were shared by enthusiastic players, but the scale was “decidedly small”, he says. It was “super unexpected that it’s really breaking out of that small niche”.
“I’m glad that the game has made people laugh and made people happy.”
He hopes the success will allow him to devote more time to game development. He’d like to create an arcade version of the game, in line with his original vision; others have suggested it would work well in VR. He also plans to add more songs and create a Mac version of the game, which is currently only playable on PC.
Vecchitto was initially concerned about how the game would go over with trombone players. Turns out he had no reason to fear: they’ve loved it. “I didn’t realize that there’s a vibrant trombone streaming culture. There’s like three different people that reached out to me who are prominent trombone streamers, which I didn’t know was a thing.”
Indeed, Colleen Wheeler of the International Trombone Association (ITA) – a 4,000-member community of trombone players across 74 countries – says: “It is abundantly clear that this is the finest game ever created.” The game, she notes, is “impeccably timed” for the 50th anniversary of the ITA, which hopes to use the game in its celebrations, according to its executive director, Magnus Nilsson.
Asked via email how similar the game was to actually playing the trombone, Wheeler wrote: “If having the time of your life counts, it is one and the same.
“I recommend that every person on the planet get the game and start practicing immediately. Hopefully, you won’t be able to resist the siren call – and you’ll find yourself securing a physical trombone, too. Your best days will be about making music,” she added.
“If this game brings you joy – and it will – why not add a trombone to your life?”