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‘Trombone Champ’ is bigger than anyone could have predicted



Making the trombone sound good is an art — one in which “Trombone Champ” has zero interest.

The trombone rhythm game blew up (pun intended) on social media this week as players shared videos of themselves butchering Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and other classic songs. Released Sept. 15, its mechanics are similar to games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band: Players move their mouse up and down and click or press a key in sync with notes cascading across the screen. Stay on beat, and the words “Perfecto!” or “Nice!” pop up. Fail, and you’ll get heckled with “Meh” or “Nasty” instead.

At the end of each song, you’re graded based on accuracy and point multipliers from combos. You’re also awarded Toots to buy Tromboner cards that feature famous trombone players, baboons and dubious facts (the trumpet is “The coward’s trombone,” according to one entry). Fair warning: If that’s not your sense of humor, this may not be the game for you.

Oh right, the baboons — there’s a lot of them in “Trombone Champ,” likely more than you were expecting. And a fair number of secrets, too.

The game’s developer, Dan Vecchitto, said that while he had hoped the game would do well, he never imagined there’d be such a large audience for his silly trombone game.

“It’s blown up way beyond our expectations,” he said in a video interview with The Washington Post.

Vecchitto, whose full-time job is in web design, has been making games for over a decade in his free time with his wife, Jackie, who works in the same field. Under the name Holy Wow Studios, they’ve released the Icarus Proudbottom series — typing games in the same faux edutainment vein as “Frog Fractions” — free online. “Trombone Champ” is their first product for sale.

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Its virality has come with some headaches.

“It’s exciting, but it’s also like, oh man, it’s a lot of work,” Vecchitto said. He had naively believed that after the game finally released there would be less work to do: “Now after release, I have thousands of players who want updates. So it’s actually a lot more pressure.”

He’d already planned to add new songs and accessibility to “Trombone Champ” over time following its release, but now that it’s gone viral, he’s setting his sights higher. He plans to flesh out the game’s storyline content, and is considering several new features, such as a level editor. A Mac port was already in the works, but now he’s also looking into what it would take to bring the game to the Nintendo Switch. Some fans have speculated what playing the game would be like in virtual reality, which he said hadn’t even been on his radar.

Of course, being a largely one-person operation, he hedged that any future updates could take a while.

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“Trombone Champ” was initially inspired by arcade cabinets. Vecchitto built one with his wife for their two-player typing game, “Icarus Proudbottom’s Typing Party,” for an indie convention in 2016.

“It was really fun, and I was kind of in the arcade mind-set,” he said. “I had just a mental image at some point of an arcade cabinet with like a giant rubber trombone peripheral.”

Two years later, he remembered the idea and made a prototype built around using the mouse to emulate the slide of a trombone. He started to plug away at it, culminating in the decision to make it Holy Wow Studio’s first game sold on Steam.

Over its four-year development cycle, “Trombone Champ” developed what Vecchitto described as a “small but very devoted and rabid fan base,” many of whom they knew in real life. During a play test in August open to the public via Steam, some players live-streamed the game on platforms like Twitch and YouTube, which got even more eyes on it. He’d expected the game to do OK, maybe generate some word-of-mouth buzz as players shared their ridiculous-sounding clips online.

Then came the moment when he realized how big the game had become: The night after the gaming news site PC Gamer posted a review, “Trombone Champ” briefly surpassed “God of War” on Steam’s chart of best-selling games on the platform.

Why the trombone? “It’s a naturally funny instrument, ” Vecchitto said. “I’m not sure why. … It might have to do with the loudness combined with the imprecision. It steps up to the plate with extreme confidence, but you have no idea what you’re going to get.”

The trombone can also slide between notes, unlike other rhythm-game instruments like the guitar or drums, which allows for funny sounds and fluctuations as the player goes from note to note. In practice, he said, the trombone in the game operates more like a slide whistle than a trombone. At first, Vecchitto (who has zero experience with the instrument) said he was nervous that real-life trombone players would be insulted by what was essentially “a parody of a trombone.” But the feedback he’s heard so far has been positive, and he added that the game has been a surprise hit in the ska community, who are already asking for more songs from the genre to be added. “Trombone Champ” currently features 20 songs, some from the public domain, a few composed by Vecchitto and one original track: “Long-Tail Limbo” by the London-based musician Max Tundra, of whom Vecchitto has been a fan for over two decades.

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As for the baboons, that idea began as one-off joke for a feature that never actually made it into the game. Vecchitto had originally planned to include three different difficulty levels, he explained.

“I really wanted to call the easy mode ‘baby’ and the hard mode ‘bonkers,’ but was struggling to think of a good ‘b’ word for the standard difficulty,” Vecchitto said. “For some reason, the word ‘baboon’ came to mind. It makes no sense, but I thought it was really funny to have the standard difficulty inexplicably called ‘baboon.’ ”

From that point forward, he started incorporating the word “baboon” into more and more menu screens for a laugh. When he started to brainstorm “Trombone Champ’s” underlying narrative and non-playable characters, most of which are hidden in its user interface, he knew he had to commit to the bit.

“I realized that they had to be baboons as well,” he said.

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