Trombone Champ, the musical computer game, has received more than 20,000 downloads since it was released last week, and gameplay videos have made waves on social media, featuring beloved songs ruined by terrible trombone playing.
The game is like Guitar Hero, but with your mouse as trombone. You move it up and down to simulate the slide, and click to blow the horn. Your goal is to play trombone classics like Beethoven’s Fifth, Hava Nagila and Take Me Out to the Ballgame.
The game is all about the joke – in fact “it’s a joke first and then a game,” says its creator, Dan Vecchitto, who is “surprised and delighted” by the flow of enthusiasm. “I don’t know why there isn’t more comedy in games because games can be so funny.”
It is also very difficult. It’s harder than it sounds to align your cursor with the notation flying across the screen, especially since you can’t hold the mouse button down indefinitely – that will lead to your character gasping and puffing out of breath. The game rates you on an AF scale, and I couldn’t beat a C. My virtual trombone playing was reminiscent of listening to a third-grade recital practice, all the honking and squawks and tuneless pitches ruining an otherwise flawless background track . The total joy of the game is in how silly that sounds.
The whole thing is framed by a Zelda-esque storyline: as you begin, you’re informed by an important-sounding voice: “Someday you’ll tear the fabric that binds this country…but until that day comes, you must toot. Comfort your trombone, brave soul, and you may become the Trombone Champ after all.” There’s also a mysterious “baboon” mode that rewards deeper investments in the game — baboon is a “naturally funny word,” says Vecchitto — and legends of a “demon” that players can summon.
Vecchito, 38, is not a trombonist himself, but he is a musician. Instead, the idea for the game came after he was struck by a mental image of an arcade game cabinet with a rubber trombone, where people were “swinging around” trying to make music, “and it would always sound bad”. Later he decided to mimic the movements of the trombone with a mouse.
He largely made the game on his own, with his wife, Jackie Vecchito, contributing art, and one of his favorite musicians, Max Tundra, adding a music track (most of the music is public domain). He thought the project would take six months; instead it took four years – although that included working around his day job as a UX/UI web designer, “and then of course Covid slows that down too. Mid-2020 was a sham.”
While he was at work, “I was a little concerned that other people wouldn’t understand,” he said. It seemed to him “it would be a little hard to sell a game if the concept is: you can’t do it right”.
He “did not expect a breakthrough” success at all. Before Trombone Champ, Vechittos’ Holy Wow Studios had made a few games shared by avid players, but the scale was “definitely small,” he says. It was “super unexpected that it really breaks out of that little niche”.
“I’m glad the game has made people laugh and happy.”
He hopes the success will allow him to spend more time developing games. He would like to make 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.
Vecchito was initially concerned about how the game would go with trombonists. Turns out he had no reason to be scared: they loved it. “I didn’t realize there’s a vibrant trombone streaming culture. There are about three different people who have contacted me, prominent trombone streamers, that I didn’t know was something.”
Indeed, Colleen Wheeler of the International Trombone Association (ITA) – a community of 4,000 members of trombonists in 74 countries – says, “It’s obvious that this is the best game ever made.” 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 playing the trombone, Wheeler wrote, “When the time of your life counts, it’s one and the same.
“I advise everyone on the planet to get the game and start practicing immediately. Hopefully you can’t resist the siren call – and you’ll also find yourself getting your hands on a physical trombone. 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?”