On Wednesday morning, I saw a tweet from games magazine PC Gamer that made me leak from the eyes with laughter. It contained a video, in which a wide-eyed, pained-looking cartoon trombonist struggled to hit the notes of Beethoven’s Fifth while the composer himself stared sombrely out of the screen in evident disapproval. It is a golden comedic combination of terrible music, fart noises, earnestness and absurdity. This is the video game Trombone Champ, and it has since gone wildly viral.
Of course I immediately downloaded it. I’ve been playing rhythm games for more than 20 years, from Beatmania to Guitar Hero to Amplitude via fun musical contraptions in Japanese arcades, and I take them embarrassingly seriously. Trombone Champ is not serious; it is a wonderful blend of accidental musical comedy, trading-card collection, made-up facts about trombones and hot dogs (“The first trombone was made in 200,000,000BC”), and true facts about baboons. (Don’t ask about the baboons. This game has unexpected secrets and the baboons are one of them.)
Playing it is, remarkably, as funny as watching it on video, at least for the first few songs. You move the trombone’s slider with your mouse and click or press a key to toot it. The noises you come out with bear only the vaguest relationship to music. The visuals are eerily comical: Rosamunde is accompanied by bierkrugs and pretzels leaping and twirling majestically on-screen. During a truly appalling rendition of God Save Our King, photos of London Bridge and the union jack fades reverently in and out of view in the background, followed by a giant jpeg of a cooked breakfast.
Trombone Champ is made by a two-person developer called Holy Wow, consisting of Dan Vecchitto and Jackie Lalli, who also made a series of competitive typing games called Icarus Proudbottom’s Typing Party. It’s fair to say that this game wasn’t on my radar. I asked PC Gamer’s Chris Livingstone how he found it; he said: “I was browsing Steam on Monday night and thought: ‘This looks cute’, which by Tuesday morning became: ‘This is a work of pure joy and I must tell the world.’”
Ben Jacobs – AKA Max Tundra, electronic musician and multi-instrumentalist – composed a song specifically for this game. (He also features on one of its trading cards.) When I asked how he got involved with an extremely niche indie tromboning game, he told me that it all started because he asked for a favor on Twitter in 2018. He needed someone to recreate an image for a poster, and one of the respondents said that he’d do it if Ben wrote a song for his game. He accepted, and four years later, you can toot along to Max Tundra’s Long-Tail Limbo.
The developers have been overwhelmed by the sudden attention that Trombone Champ is attracting. “We should clarify that at the moment, Holy Wow is mostly a one person operation. And it’s not even our primary gig! We work full-time jobs (!!!) and built this whole game on nights, weekends, and holidays,” tweeted Vecchitto. “So, it’s going to take us a few weeks to get our lives in order and deal with the huge demand this game generated.”
Trombone Champ is a little gift from the internet, something that can be thoroughly enjoyed – unexpected baboons and all – over a few lunch breaks or evenings, and then evangelized about forever. I kept noticing new little details about it, such as the graph that scores each song on Spunk, Doots, Slides, Fury and Tears, or the scrolling lyrics to the warmup tune, which concludes “I have warmed up my trombone! My nightmare is over, woo”. I defy you not to grin while playing it.