Beyond Guitar Hero: the viral music game that revived my teenage obsession

So, by now we’ve all seen Trombone Champ, right? The music game – in which you play a cartoon trombonist making noises that bear only the vaguest resemblance to music – went viral last week; if you’ve not seen it, here’s the tweet from PC Gamer that started it all. I promise that your day will be vastly improved by watching this video.

This game is very, very funny. It’s “a joke first and a game second,” its creator Dan Vecchitto told the Guardian. Part of its comedy is in the presentation – the discordant visual details, the random made-up facts on the loading screens – and part of it is in the sheer ridiculousness of what you’re doing and how dismal it sounds. Here’s the thing, though: I’m a specialist in music games, with ateenaged obsession that lasted at least a decade, and Trombone Champ is genuinely a good and challenging rhythm game, as well as a good joke.

The act of moving a mouse up and down and pressing a button has just enough in common with the act of playing a trombone to make this a legitimate interactive approximation. And, as I discovered when trying to get the highest possible score, an S-rank, on a few songs – motivated by some deep need to conquer the game – it is challenging to wring anything higher than a B out of the game’s scoring system. Being good at Trombone Champ is not only possible, but aspirational.

Trombone Champ has reminded me how much I miss music games. For a while in the late 00s they were everywhere, after Guitar Hero proved an unlikely breakout hit. From 2007 until 2010 or so, my living room was full of plastic instruments: drums and guitars for Rock Band, DJ decks from DJ Hero. Those toy guitars were just close enough to real ones to make you feel good when you were playing, and far enough away to make anyone feel like they could actually be a rock star, at least when you’re playing on Easy. I did not stop at Easy; I defeated every song on Expert and became phenomenally good at playing pretend instruments – a talent that has garnered me admiration at parties but has absolutely no use in the year 2022.

Before Guitar Hero, my first experiences with music games was 2001’s Gitaroo Man, the unlikely heroic tale of a teenaged boy who is transformed into an anime superhero by the power of everything from rock and jazz to J-pop and electro-funk – every level changed genre, sending you off to fight musical battles with maraca-wielding skeletons or giant bee-men with saxophones, and culminating in an epic guitar solo trade-off with a rival superhero in space. I’ve never played such a musically creative game; its Legendary Theme was one of the first things I ever learned to play on an actual guitar. I played it over and over for two years until I finally finished it on Master mode, an achievement I am still proud of. That game was hard. All music games were hard, back then, but also tantalisingly conquerable with practice and pattern recognition, like the arcade shmups that fascinated the generation before mine.

Guitar Hero III.
Guitar Hero III. Photograph: RedOctane

Amplitude, in 2003, was my next great music-game obsession, a club-inspired beat-matcher where you layered drums and instruments together by matching their rhythms until a song blossomed from those disparate tracks. I spent months as a teenager lost in that game. The combination of the thrumming music and pulsing lights and blooming colours, and the demands that it put on my reflexes, shut out thoughts from my mind and turned me into a conduit for the music. I loved that game so much that I chucked £500 at its Kickstarter campaign when the developer proposed reviving it in 2015, assuming it would never succeed. (It did succeed, in the end, and the game was made, and I was poor but extremely happy.)

When I lived in Japan in 2008, at the tail end of the arcade era, I got to experience Bemani games – named for their progenitor, Beatmania, an arcade DJ game that rewards precision and absurdly fast fingers – in their native environment, where they had been fixtures for a decade or more. I’d watch high-school kids remain otherwise eerily motionless as their fingers danced up and down the buttons on these machines, chasing high scores. One of the newer ones at the time, Jubeat, was a mysterious glowing cube whose 16 touchscreen segments lit up in time to sugary hyperpop or eardrum-battering drum and bass, and it made you look like a mad octopus conductor when you played it. It is so satisfying to play music games like these: you are mastering something, way that you’d master a real instrument, and the visual and audio feedback can put you into a synaesthesic trance.

I played all kinds of wild nonsense during the peak years of my rhythm-game obsession. Jam With the Band, a DS game that turned songs into MIDI-fied elevator music that you could play with friends. The superb Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, a mix of interactive anime and drumming game. Sadly, this genre has pretty much disappeared. Having saturated the market with expensive bits of otherwise useless plastic, Activision dumped Guitar Hero in 2010; a brief revival in 2015 did not, sadly, herald a second coming for this genre that I love so much. Good music games now are a rare treat.

Ridiculous though it is, I see Trombone Champ as a spinoff in this tradition, a brief visitation from a genre that’s been out of fashion for a long time. I was intrigued to read that its creator first envisioned it as an arcade game, imagining people flailing around with a rubber trombone. The arcade is where music games started, really, so that would be fitting.

What to read

  • Released in 1982, The Hobbit was an extraordinarily influential game that did more with the format of the text adventure than anything that had come before: players remember it not just for the colour of its descriptions, but the creative way that the game would respond to what you typed. Its visionary designer Veronika Megler talks about its making in this feature.

  • HBO’s The Last of Us show finally has a trailer, in which we get to see Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie. Thankfully, it actually looks really good.

  • The once-beleaguered game Cyberpunk 2077, which you might remember from its shambolic launch at the end of 2020, is enjoying record player numbers following a well-received spinoff anime series on Netflix, Cyberpunk Edgerunners. If you liked this game’s vibe but were put off by the bugs, this might be the time to give it a second chance, though my colleague Keith Stuart reckoned its problems were more than skin deep.

What to play

Sayonara Game
Shining bright … Sayonara. Photograph: Annapurna Interactive/Steam

I’ve recommended so many obscure music games that I feel compelled to keep going, having disappeared down a memory hole. Here’s one you can play today, without scouring eBay for long-discontinued peripherals or Japanese import games for the PlayStation 2: Sayonara Wild Hearts, an interactive Swedish pop album that has you dancing and transforming and fighting along to its music and tarot-inspired neon visuals. It’s a journey, the closest modern counterpart to Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s mesmerising musical-shooter, Rez.

Available on: Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch, iPhone/iPad, PC
Approximate playtime: one hour (plus replays)

What to click

“Terrible music and absurdity”: introducing Trombone Champ, the internet’s new favourite video game

Food Truck Simulator review – real-world sim forgets about fun

“Video games open us to a spectrum of emotions”: novelist Gabrielle Zevin on Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

A video-game music biopic: We Are OFK follows a virtual band trying to make it in LA

Question block

This week’s question from reader David is:

So immature, I know, but one of my favourite games on the old Amiga 500 was Skidmarks. Any other games out there with unintentionally funny or embarrassing names?

SCAT: Special Cybernetic Attack Team, renamed Action in New York.
SCAT: Special Cybernetic Attack Team, renamed Action in New York. Photograph: scat

Going from the intentional comedy of Trombone Champ to the unintentional comedy of badly translated/ill-advised video game titles: how about Seaman. Or 1990’s SCAT: Special Cybernetic Attack Team. It had to be renamed Action in New York for the European market, which slays me. Or Booby Kids from 1987, a 100% real game. I still sometimes laugh when I think about Steambot Chronicles, an RPG that was released in 2005 under the name Bumpy Trot (not rude but very silly). I cannot believe THQ actually managed to release a game calledDestroy All Humans!Big Willy Unleashed, though I very much enjoyed watching American games journalists talking about it with a straight face. It’s amazing how quickly we get used to even the most snickersome name: when the Nintendo Wii was announced, nobody at the magazine I worked at then could say the name without smirking.

The Guardian