Let us now praise the poets of the watermelon. There is Frida Kahlo, who arranged them like architecture, a strange city of watermelons, one particular example etched with the words, Viva La Vida, a sentiment so joyous not even Coldplay could ruin it. There is Ricky Jay, the conjurer, actor, writer, historian of magic, who could fling playing cards with such deadly speed that their 52 polite razor edges would pierce the thick, “pachydermous hide” of “his majesty”, shining and green on Broadway or on the set of the Johnny Carson show.
And now we must add Fruit Ninja. A hush and that hollow popping noise, a T-shirt cannon has fired off-screen and then the watermelon is tumbling before us. “His majesty” is not the half of it. Are we in space? Are we orbiting, circling, caught in some endless Kubrick freefall, upwards and around? Behold nature’s panzered blimp: its outside speaks of snakes and camouflage and armour. Its inside, once the blade has sung and fairly scorched the mineral air, is a revelation of blood. And yet, amidst the snakes and camouflage and armour and blood, amidst the scattered punctuation of those little black seeds, the pedantry of pips, the watermelon is revealed as a thing of purest joy.
I didn’t want to write about Fruit Ninja+, which has recently landed on Apple Arcade, because it is not remotely new, and there are other good games that are new, and doesn’t everybody know Fruit Ninja anyway, and aren’t we all through it and over it? But Fruit Ninja+ gets at part of what makes Arcade sing. Curation! Taste! A platform’s sense of its own history. I have a vague sense of checking in on Fruit Ninja over the years, a fading, perhaps false, memory of being disappointed with what had to happen for a game to survive in the App Store. Nothing egregious, just little additions and quirks that ruined the purity of it.
I doubt Fruit Ninja was a particularly bad example of that trend. (And I appreciate that, having stepped away from smartphone gaming a little over the years only to return recently, my memories of the landscape are warped by ignorance and poor memory and probably prejudice too.) But even so, part of Arcade feels like this to me – an attempt to preserve classic App Store games and rescue them, if rescuing is needed, from the mercantile abuses that the store’s own marketplace might have inflicted upon them. That’s how Fruit Ninja+ comes across to me: whether my memory of its journey is right or wrong, it has the clarity of a game that emerges uncontorted, freed from the ugly kinks of commerce and bad taste. (That said, Fruit Ninja made it to VR?! I have to try it.)
You slice fruit in Fruit Ninja. It is all the violence and blood lust of Doom, but at worst you end up with a sugary mess and a desert kebab of some kind. Pop pop pop! Stand back and then there are limes and oranges and watermelons in the air. You do not need to be told what to do. Swipe them! No blade on the screen, just the trail of one. Your finger is the blade. The animations are canned, but they do not feel canned. It feels, even now, like magic. The screen becomes a vehicle for your will. Your finger becomes a vehicle for your will. Cleave the fruit. Avoid the bombs. Attack the score.
I see now that Fruit Ninja is very happy to flatter – the sheer expressiveness in the blade and the cleanness of the animations makes you feel more skilled than you are. Meanwhile, the pulpy eruptions of a combo can sound like applause. The combos are where the actual skill lies, in fact. And the actual skill of Fruit Ninja is all about waiting. It is so much gratuitous fun to swipe in Fruit Ninja, so to play really well the game asks you not to – not yet. The fruit are flying, but wait until they start to fall, wait until they form a neat line, the way that planets do once every million years when the monsters return to walk the earth. Then swipe. Combo. That’s the skill. You wait! You understand when not to play the game.
And I see now that Fruit Ninja is really about fireworks. The staging of each display, the pauses between the popping arrival of fruit, the lazy arcs, the eruptions. This is the pacing of Fireworks Night. These are rockets bursting against the sky. Fireworks that you conduct with your finger, with those swipes.
You now swipe to leave the app, with the modern iPhone set-up, which is deeply harmonious, a bit of a freebie. And the game retains that bit of secret magic when, allegedly bored, you try two fingers, three, four, even five, and see that Fruit Ninja can accommodate them all. Five little singing blades slicing fruit. Call Digital Foundry. Witchcraft. This is the history of App Store games, or part of it, and it is finally getting its due.