Trombone Champ has been the star of my timeline this week; I’m constantly running into absurd renditions of songs like “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” But in a conversation with Dan Vecchitto, the founder of Trombone Champ developer Holy Wow Studios, he brought up something I think is a major factor in the game’s success: we just don’t see a lot of comedy in gaming right now.
Games have been pushing the boundaries of capital-S Serious Storytelling for some time with series like The Last of Us. Others remain popular because of their high-skill and high-stress competitive multiplayer. But we just don’t see many games that embrace their own comedy in the way that Trombone Champ does.
While there are a growing number of games that are designed with intentionally lower stakes, Trombone Champ goes farther by celebrating failure. Missed notes, which are penalized in other rhythm titles like Guitar Hero, are part of the game’s appeal. The success of Trombone Champ shows that there’s a market for games that go all in on comedy, according to Vecchitto. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Return to Monkey Island here, which came out this week and is very funny.)
The initial idea for Trombone Champ was for it to be an arcade game
The initial idea for Trombone Champ was for it to be an arcade game, Vecchitto said. After making a multiplayer arcade typing game, Icarus Proudbottom’s Typing Party (which you can play at the Wonderville arcade in Brooklyn), Vecchitto thought about other types of games that would be interesting to play as an arcade cabinet. One involved a trombone, which to me honestly sounds fantastic; I would travel very far to play an arcade game that let me jam to tunes with a physical trombone controller.
But there are some obvious impracticalities with that idea. (I can’t imagine a trombone controller would survive too many half-drunk people swinging it around.) So instead, he experimented with a trombone game that relied on a mouse. You can see some of that early work in this prototype from four years ago, which already shows the promise of what the game would eventually become.
Vecchitto ran with the idea and spent the next four years building Trombone Champ. He has a full-time job (he talked to me over his lunch break), so he largely worked on the game on nights and weekends, with some breaks in between. His wife contributed most of the artwork.
Now that the game’s out, he “foolishly” thought they could relax. But given the game’s level of success, they’ll be working on some needed fixes and addressing some of the biggest requests, like localizing the game into other languages and adding accessibility options. He plans to investigate bringing the game to consoles, including the Nintendo Switch (imagine using the Joy-Con controllers to mimic playing trombone!), and he says a few developers have reached out about potentially helping bring the game to virtual reality. You can get an idea of some of the updates he’s thinking about in a roadmap shared last week.
Right now, the vast majority of the tracks are public domain, and he wants to add more, particularly from other musicians, like the one currently in the game from Max Tundra. If you were wondering, Vecchitto himself doesn’t play trombone, but he is a musician; he even contributed a few songs to Skatebird, the indie skateboarding game where you play as a bird. (One of those songs, “SkaBIRD,” is playable in Trombone Champ.)
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go practice the national anthem in Trombone Champ. Though I don’t think I can ever play it as hilariously as this.