The 17th-century German rationalist philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz wrote that “Perfection is the harmony of things.” If that’s the case then our discordant parping in Trombone Champ is far from perfect – despite the multipliers received on maxing out our ‘Champ’ gauge. But you don’t need to achieve perfection to enjoy Trombone Champ; you just have to strive for it.
Having been discovered on Steam as a rich seam of irresistible meme material in 2022, the zany brass-sim from Holy Wow has most probably crossed your radar at some point. Now, almost exactly a year after its PC release, Switch owners have been blessed with their very own version, shadow-dropped alongside a surprise reveal in the recent Nintendo Direct.
Gameplay, in case you’re unfamiliar, is different from a lot of rhythm action fare in that you must work on both pitch and timing. Your instrument being a trombone, the pitch is modulated with a slide and the rhythm input with a single tooting button. This means you actually have a free-moving cursor that must be aligned to incoming notes on the screen, making precise intonation a finicky business. What’s more, the PC version’s mouse has been swapped for Joy-Con motion control, lending even less fidelity to your commands. The upshot of the whole setup is that your playing is unlikely to sound very professional, even after hours of practice.
There is a choice of four different input methods but none of them gives an easy ride. The default is to hold one Joy-Con and tilt it with your wrist to move the trombone slide, operating the mouth and lungs by pressing any one of the four shoulder buttons across your two Joy-Cons. This means you can parp with your left hand and slide with your right, as we preferred, or work entirely with one hand.
Another tilting option is designed for swinging the whole arm up and down, which is funny for its desperate stretching to reach the low notes when the calibration gets out of whack.
A further option is the practically impossible thumbstick control, and finally, there’s the infrared option, in which the right Joy-Con measures its rarely-used reflected light to judge its distance from something. (We found it fun to point it at our chest and wave clumsily in and out exactly like a real trombone.) All of these options are silly and, although the default mode is clearly the one to stick with, not a single one gets around the sheer impossibility of playing smoothly.
But this doomed control scheme is absolutely fine for two reasons. Firstly, the rating of your toots is exactly lenient enough: it has the required strictness to make the game fun and challenging, but it will happily dish out a ‘Perfecto’ for a note that still sounds more than a little wobbly.
Secondly, the inaccuracy of your performance is nonetheless precisely hilarious every time. As the comedian Stewart Lee once said, there’s nothing funnier than trying to do your best, and Trombone Champ bears that out. Holy Wow lean into this fact gloriously with their recognisable-despite-everything catalogue of mainly public domain music and arrangements that know when to expose the trombone for wince-inducing solos. Painfully howling out ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ as fireworks explode triumphantly against a backdrop of hamburgers and fluttering flags never gets old.
And if this all sounds a bit chaotic, then wait till we get into the multiplayer. For the Switch release, Trombone Champ allows up to four ‘musicians’ to co-serenade anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot, with all the subtlety and expression of a primary school recorder ensemble. Each player has a slide and all try to play the same part as in single player. We soon discovered that, when it comes to playing in tune, four wrongs don’t make a right. In fact, they make things very much less right.
Everything about the experience is multiplied: the difficulty of playing in tune with one another and the backing track; the cacophony of your best efforts; but also the thrill of not actually sounding all that terrible for a half-minute stretch. The brief moments when listeners can take their fingers out of their ears are a rush. It’s an additional angle on what is already great party game fodder.
All this wild gameplay is wrapped up in a neat parcel of barmy presentation. The game immediately loads into a 50/50 split between Castlevania-esque gothic imagery and WarioWare-esque explosive craziness. It then launches into absurd trombone lore focused entirely around baboons. One range of unlockables, such as new trombone sounds, is obtained by gathering points – ‘toots’ – and trading them with a baboon. Another option is to use your toots – or an alternative currency of ‘turds’ – to buy trading cards featuring famous musicians and different types of baboon, replete with brief biographical ‘facts’, typically declaring how many hotdogs Beethoven et al could eat in a single sitting.
Trombone Champ is a game about perfection. Before you play, it asks you to select a stance for your tromboner: ‘estudious’ or ‘jubilant’. Neither of these is appropriate when you know your performance will be as ear-abusive as an excited puppy mauling a bulb horn. Or are they? The true lesson is perhaps to hold your head high anyway. In life, as in Trombone Champ, faced as we all are with certain doom, be estudious if you like, be jubilant, parp like crazy, and be your very best you – no matter how imperfect that invariably is.