Surely there is only one rational response to hearing a neighbour playing the trombone loudly and badly for hours on end: seethe silently until you can stand it no more, then go over there and give them a piece of your mind. Yet, as I comprehensively murdered Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on rhythm-action game Trombone Champ, producing a sound distinguished only by its tuneless flatulence, I was surprised to find myself surrounded by an ever-growing group of admirers. Housemates and visitors poured in. They laughed joyously at my efforts and clamoured to be next to have a go.
There was a time when music games were everywhere. In the late 2000s, many of my friends’ living rooms had a corner dedicated to piles of plastic instruments used for Guitar Hero and Rock Band. We had some good times — there was nothing quite like feeling it was your own deft fingerwork tearing up Slash’s solo in “Sweet Child O’ Mine” — but the music game market reached saturation by the decade’s end and never quite recovered.
Part of the issue was that those games took themselves too seriously. Earlier music releases had shown gaming at its most psychedelic and irreverent, from the hip-hop soap opera of PaRappa the Rapper to the neon futurism of Rez. Today, indie developers are returning to the genre in droves, reaffirming how joyful and eccentric games can be when music is placed centre stage.
The first case in point is Trombone Champ, which in the past few weeks has gone viral, largely because it prioritises comedy over musical chops. The set-up looks familiar: notes scroll along from the side of the screen for you to hit on time using a standard computer mouse, but instead of buttons, you can slide across the instrument’s entire scale, multiplying opportunities to mess up and emit discordant parps and squeals. The difficulty is deliberate. Developers Holy Wow, who are husband and wife hobbyists, have made a game where failure sounds so funny that it is as enjoyable — if not more so — than success.
The song catalogue offers familiar tunes such as “The Entertainer”, “Hava Nagila” and the British national anthem, presumably because it’s far less funny to hear someone mangle a tune that you’ve never heard. The real stroke of genius, though, is to offer the humble trombone — an instrument that rivals the didgeridoo and the triangle for inherent comedic potential — the main melody in every song. It will come as little surprise that fans have already built their own custom controllers to play the game, some based on kazoos, others on actual trombones.
The second example in the return of the rhythm game could not be more different. Metal: Hellsinger is a first-person shooter heavily inspired by modern Doom remakes. Its twist is that instead of blasting demons into chunks of viscera at whatever cadence you choose, you do it to the rhythm of a gnarly heavy metal soundtrack.
If you fire your gun on the beat, combos rack up that both increase the power of your weapons and add more layers to the soundtrack, from additional drums to squealing guitar solos and authentically hoarse screaming vocals courtesy of singers from bands such as System of a Down and Trivium. Once you wrap your head around the concept, the genre hybrid works fluidly. I found that blasting demons to a beat got my blood pumping to metal as it never had before.
Indie developers have found ways to insert rhythm gameplay into all manner of genres in recent years. In Crypt of the Necrodancer you can upload your own MP3s to battle through dungeons with a custom soundtrack, or you can surf soundwaves in abstract puzzle-platformers such as Ynglet and Onde. One of the most charming is Rhythm Doctor, in which you play a medical intern whose rhythmic defibrillator is the only viable treatment for patients with an array of zany cardiac complaints.
Music can also prompt indie developers to experiment with bold visual styles. The ultra-stylish motorbike ride of Sayonara Wild Hearts forms a synaesthetic whole with its catchy synth-pop soundtrack. Genesis Noir tells a detective story using adventurous imagery which moves at the fragmented pace of its jazzy score. Then there’s A Musical Story, whose tale of an amnesiac musician in a psych-rock group is told with a visual language ripped straight from a vintage Woodstock poster.
It’s thrilling to see how many ways indie creators can twist a genre that once felt stale. All these fresh combinations remind us that deep down every action game is about rhythm, from the dexterous combos of Street Fighter to the carefully timed dodges of Elden Ring. The perfect synthesis of music, visuals and action can beckon gamers into that heady flow state where their eyes unfocus and they feel connected to some greater pulse beyond themselves — even if it’s only for the sake of butchering the “William Tell Overture”.
‘Trombone Champ’ is out now on PC; ‘Metal: Hellsinger’ is out now on PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and PC