It’s not often that a game comes out of nowhere to absolutely dominate social media overnight. Then again, it’s incredibly rare that video clips from a new title make you cry with laughter within 15 seconds, as players use a trombone to absolutely murder “Hava Nagila”, “Stars and Stripes Forever”, or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Debuting on TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and, crucially, PC this month is Trombone Champ. Created by one-man operation Holy Wow–the brainchild of developer Dan Vecchitto–it rightly bills itself as “the world’s first trombone-based rhythm music game.” The question you immediately ask yourself is obvious: Why has this not been done sooner? The proof’s in the pudding–Trombone Champ is now a top seller on Steam, and rightly so.
Trombone Champ knows exactly what it is: a game that took the hilarity of the orchestra’s funniest instrument and then worked backwards. With its singular focus on one-touch, rhythm action simplicity–in combination with world-famous songs and, for some reason, baboons and hot dogs–this incredible success story is a genuine tour de force that everyone deserves to play, even if it only ends up being a fleeting compulsion. However, chances are it’ll be more than that.
Watching clips of Trombone Champ may be hilarious, but there’s always a worry that a game like this may, ironically, be one-note when you’re actually playing it. Thankfully, it’s got a bit more to it.
Trombone Champ places you in the brass-holding hands of a delightfully jaunty Nintendo Mii, with whom you “honk, blow, and toot” through its collection of tunes. Controls are a little odd, but surprisingly instinctive; it’s incredibly easy to pick up, but shockingly hard to master. Entirely mouse-based, if you want it to be–though Trombone Champ recommends your keyboard for note-blowing, for comfort–the game adopts a reverse Y-axis input to replicate the slide of a trombone.
Out of the box, calibration is perfectly fine. Making the slide less twitchy in search of more careful control only restricts your responsive range when notes hit extreme highs and lows. Adjustments or not, Trombone Champ is so intuitive that after a long session, you legitimately forget how to use your mouse in a normal capacity when you exit the game.
Naturally, some songs are incredibly easy to have a go at, though many are surprisingly difficult, even if you know them off by heart. All the classics are here, including Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Joplin, plus a host of national anthems, including “O, Canada”, “The Star Spangled Banner” and, perhaps tragically for some, “God Save the King”–a song title which, for a Brit like me, I still can’t get used to. Nonetheless, it’s what Liz would’ve wanted: her son’s reign immortalized by comedy brass.
Clocking in at just 500MB, it’s no surprise Trombone Champ upscales to 4K resolutions with ease, maintaining a great frame rate on even lower-level rigs. Still, it’s one of the few games that benefit from windowed mode, even if you want total immersion; having the prompt so far on the left makes you lose focus on the beautiful things happening elsewhere on the screen.
Beautiful and comically lo-fi graphics unfold during each song. Whether it’s the fireworks of America’s most famous tune, a spinning Star of David, a boatload of old grey mares, or a surprisingly prominent full English breakfast, it’s all here, and you don’t want to miss a thing. Lyrics also roll across the bottom of the screen in karaoke fashion, if you want to sing along, but you’ll either be too stressed, or laughing too much.
For all the folk and classical hits that have piqued interest on social media, the real musical strengths of Trombone Champ come from its more original tunes. Remixes of “Auld Land Syne” and “Eine Kleine” prove to be long needed, while the game’s decision to lay a dank trap drum mix over Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” is a masterstroke akin to Gran Turismo 7’s inclusion of Hooked on Classics (Parts 1 & 2) by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Even more promisingly for Trombone Champ’s ongoing appeal, its original songs prove to be its best stages to play. “SkaBIRD”, which was created by Holy Wow to respond to fan demand for a ska song, is probably its funniest tune, though the most satisfying by far is Max Tundra’s “Long-Tail Limbo”–an utterly incredible and weirdly life-affirming track, something all the more impressive given that it was specifically composed as a return favor for the developer.
The more you play, the better you get, and the more Toots you collect. Given the overall tone of the game–and the fact its songs are measured in Tears, Fury, Spunk, Slides, and Doots–you’re forgiven for assuming Toots are a joke in themselves, but they’re real in-game currency. With them, you can collect the game’s 50 cards and, without spoiling the surprise, you eventually figure out how to use them to unlock new characters, sound effects, and more.
Trombone Champ will hopefully be added to–the Brooklyn-based developer is onto something rather incredible. Importing more well-known songs is one thing, but its own compositions are another–songs that add a real sense of challenge, but also get the absolute most out of the instrumental star of the show.
And yet, all its talk of baboons and hot dogs dives into something deeper, not unlike Control managed with its relatively unique take on the SCP Foundation. By already building the foundations of a unique and frankly bewildering universe, Vecchitto has allowed room for more new, bright ideas to flourish, even if the base game remains a brass-based rhythm-action experience.
However, for all this talk of the future, what makes Trombone Champ so irresistible and playable right now is how your pursuit of perfection–which often feels impossible to achieve–combines so wonderfully with the reward of failure, which makes your rendition sound hilarious. You never feel short-changed by any performance, however good or bad it is.
It’s proof that sometimes, all you need is a simple idea, a good sense of humor, and a concept that transcends language barriers. For $15, Trombone Champ is a bargain–and other people’s talk of it being a GOTY contender aren’t wrong, because it’ll last much longer in the memory than 95% of this year’s challengers.