The Daily Victim Christmas Special 2002

Thomas Crumley, the city’s best and only videogame appraiser, sat hunched over in a grimy stuffed leather chair whose many patches had since been patched over until it resembled a quilt. Flecks of dust hung in the air, shimmering under the intense light of his halogen desk lamp in a way not unlike the snowflakes falling outside. It was Christmas Eve, but Crumley was working – not for lack of sentimentality (although he had none), but simply because it was his busiest time of year.

A jeweler’s eyeglass was wedged unceremoniously into Crumley’s left eye, and his face clenched it tightly into place amid a sea of new wrinkles, giving the young man slouching on the other side of the desk the illusion that the tiny glass had grown there. Crumley had a hooked nose and slender fingers that turned in place the object of his scrutiny, a Mattel Intellivision – or more specifically the controller of that old machine. The buttons had been pressed so often that they’d long since lost their rounded membrane shape. And as for the thumb disk itself, the main part of the controller?

“It’s missing the gold protective cover,” Crumley sniffed, opening his other eye to peer at his client without removing the jeweler’s glass from the first. In the otherwise dark office with the glare of the single bright halogen light, Crumley looked not unlike the main character of Splinter Cell or some sort of evil cyborg.

“Well, uh, my brother and I, we-”

“…peeled it off,” Crumley interrupted. “With a screwdriver. After attempting to glue on a joystick so that it played more like an Atari, it looks like.”

Guilt crossed over the young man’s face. “C’mon, it still works, right? Can I get some money for it?”

Crumley removed the jewelers glass (one of his pupils was now disturbingly larger than the other) and stared down his client. This was the part of his job that gave him the most joy. “Nevertheless,” he said, turning the screws. “It’s been modified. And ruined. I’ll give you five dollars for the parts.”

He knew well enough that with only the slightest effort he could have the machine cleaned up and the controllers looking as though they’d just come out of the styrofoam box from Sears. Then he’d sell the machine as “virtually mint” condition to a serious videogame collector, or to some connoisseur on eBay for as much as $50 bucks. This weighed little on his conscience as the man on the other side of the desk begrudgingly sold him his prized childhood toy for a wrinkled five-dollar bill, strolling out into the snow with slumped shoulders.

Crumley, pleased with himself, gently set the system into a cardboard box with some others. He turned his neck and loudly popped his back. Crumley wasn’t a gamer himself, just an old electronics geek who loved tinkering with the innards. Why, he always wondered, did these fools ruin otherwise valuable gaming systems by playing with them? The finger smudges alone brought down the value. He sniffed and looked at the clock – he still wanted to wait a few more hours before closing on Christmas Eve.

It was an eventful few hours. He managed to score a library of 50 Atari 2600 games for five bucks, and at first glance at least three of them would probably score him ten dollars each on eBay. Later he added a Nintendo 64 to his collection. Five bucks, he found, was enough to practically buy anything from anyone if you talked them down enough.

Now, the Sinistar arcade machine was a different matter entirely. A strange trio of 20-somethings rolled it into his shop on a battered dolly. He scowled, and when he was certain they were looking, he visibly showed his disdain. “Excuse me,” he said. “This machine looks like a Vietnam War veteran.”

The youngest of the three spoke first. “Dude it’s a classic! This is Sinistar with fully working controls, sound, video, and even voice. Also, it’s using special beta ROMs from the AMOA trade show, so it’s super-collectable. We were wondering if you could appraise it and give us a certificate?”

Crumley stooped low and opened the front panel, his bones creaking. The innards of the machine were in wretched condition. “What’s this,” he asked, withdrawing something long and slimy.

“That’s an … earthworm,” replied one of the kids, shifting uncomfortably. “The machine was buried for a few days.”

“And these scratch marks on the cabinet?”

“I did, briefly, attack it with a snowshovel.”

I   a m    S i n i s t a r

added the machine, speaking aloud with a gravelly voice synthesizer.

Crumley knew he could clean up the damage and that the special boards would be valuable to any collector, but he didn’t want to let it show. “Disgusting,” he said, then paused for effect. “I’ll give you $50 for parts.”

One of the three kids had to be restrained by the girl, while the other spoke with nearly as much anger. “What!? Listen old man, we’re not here to sell this, we just wanted to get a certificate of how much it’s worth. And we know it’s worth more than that!

“A certificate? For this? The machine itself wouldn’t be worth the paper such a certificate were printed on. Very well, I’ll give you $75 to take it off your hands, otherwise I want it out of my sight.”

Angrily, the trio unplugged and wheeled away the machine, back out into the snow. Crumley thought he might have gone up to $100, but he honestly didn’t feel like doing the restoration work. He knew such a machine would fetch a pretty penny among collectors but sensed these game-headed fools wouldn’t want to part with their treasure. Just before they disappeared, however, the youngest of the three popped his head back in through the door.

“You’re gonna get yours, old man!” he sputtered. “I don’t know when, but someday. You’ll get yours.”

“We’re closed,” Crumley replied, slamming the door. Actually, he wasn’t closed, but the bitter exchange and prophetic words rattled his excitable disposition. He looked at the wet puddle on the floor where the snowy Sinistar had been and grunted. “I’ll get mine? Indeed!” Exhaling angrily through his nostrils, Crumley turned to flip over his “closed” sign when a figure startled him.

A ragged little man stood on his doorstep, his tattered black coat powdered with snow, a bundle under one arm. “We’re closed!” roared Crumley, flipping his cardboard sign over.

The man’s eyes opened in crestfallen panic. He placed a glove onto the glass, patting it pitifully. “Please!” he mouthed. Crumley noted that the tip of the index finger was missing from the glove, long since frayed away.

Crumley was about to turn his back, but the bundle under the arm excited too much of his curiosity. He swung the door open and allowed the man through, ignoring the muttered thanks. “You’ll be my good deed for the day,” Crumley lied, closing the door behind him.

The ragged little man with the thin face tried to warm himself beside Crumley’s halogen lamp. Crumley himself threw his weight onto his worn leather chair with the squish of stale air escaping. “What is it?” he growled.

His client placed the bundle on the desk between then and carefully opened it with shivering fingers. He was a thin man, very frail, with two bright red earmuffs and very little hair on his tiny, elongated head. Then Crumley’s eyes tracked down to the bundle, which opened to reveal a small box and wires unlike any he’d seen before.

“Before I got my art degree I was an intern at Nintendo of America. They were getting ready for the US launch of the Famicom – or, the NES as they named it over here.” He gestured to the mysterious box. “Before they were manufacturing the U.S. version they had a couple of prototypes that we were playing with. This is one of them. They told us to destroy them once the first U.S. models rolled off the line, but me and an engineer there smuggled a couple out.”

Crumley stuffed his jeweler’s glass into his eye, partially to get a better look at the system but mostly (as he always had) to disguise the excitement his true facial expression would reveal. The gray box before him was held together with ordinary screws as opposed to Nintendo proprietary screws, which he gingerly undid. Inside, the chips were unmistakably Nintendo’s with Japanese markings, but the boards were put together as if by hand. In fact, yes, he spotted it: some connectors were actually hand-soldered. A hand soldered Nintendo prototype!! Crumley would’ve doubted its even existence if he wasn’t holding it right there in his very hands. He was holding a fortune!

The man across the desk, meanwhile, was babbling incessantly, making Crumley’s job easier with each uninvited piece of information. “I’d like to keep it but I’m an art director and since the dot coms all went under, I haven’t had much luck getting a regular job. Now it’s Christmas, and my son wants one of those new GameCubes, but I can’t afford it. I figure maybe this old thing is worth something to collectors…?”

Crowley removed the glass and tried his best to put on a scowl. “Well, you see, this was never an official Nintendo product. In fact, see here – it’s hand-soldered. I’m afraid it’s of little interest to collectors. But, since it’s Christmas, I can take it off your hands for…” Crumley weighed his options, looking carefully into the man’s eyes with mismatched pupils. “Forty dollars,” he offered.

“That won’t even buy me a single GameCube game!” the man protested.

Crumley rapped his slender fingers on the table. “I guess you’ve your son to think about. Fifty it is! Deal?”

The man hung his head, disappointed. “Okay,” he finally agreed. Crumley opened a desk drawer, unlocked his cash box, and handed his crestfallen client five bills. “Tell you what,” he offered. “I’ll sell you this Nintendo 64 for Twenty.” He leaned down to remove the game system from a cardboard box on the floor. “These are lots of fun, you know, for the kids.”

“Okay,” the artist admitted quietly, handing him ten dollars.

“You’ll need controllers, too. Four for five dollars a piece? That way, you and the kids can all play together.”

“Okay,” the man muttered, handing over two more bills.

“And here, look, Mario Party and Super Smash Bros. were also in the box. Those are four-player games. How much do you have left? Deal!”

Crumley handed him the rest of the box and stripped the starving artist of the last of his money. “You’ve saved Christmas! Congratulations. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you. Enjoy those new games!”

Grinning happily, Crumley ushered his victim out the front door and slammed the deadbolt shut with a click. He’d bought that Nintendo 64, controllers, games and all, earlier in the day for ten bucks. And now what does he have for it? A one of a kind collector’s item!

Old Crumley was as meticulous a man as the circuit boards he loved to tinker with, and he maintained a daily planner with all of his activities. For Christmas Eve, he put a checkmark next to “Bilk customers.” Then for later that evening, he wrote “Find buyer for incredible Nintendo antique.” He turned the page to Christmas day. Such a blessed day required a special celebration, one befitting his recent windfall. “Day off,” he wrote. And underneath, in neat careful letters, he added: “Limo full of hookers.”

Finding a buyer was easy. He posted a notice online and within five minutes he got a reply from a strange, untraceable email address. The original offer nearly caused Crumley to fall off his leather chair, but shrewd as he was he insisted on haggling and managed to wring out another two grand. His final price? Thirteen thousand U.S. dollars.

*     *     *

The snow that had fallen all afternoon intensified that evening, blanketing the whole region in a foot or more of thick, glistening powder. Crumley remained in his shop long after sunset, while the windows of his store filled from the corners with snow.

He hunched over a TV. In his excitement he had neglected to actually test the system before agreeing on the sale, which was a mistake he intended to remedy. He carefully cleaned all of the contacts and hooked the prototype up to his TV. Then he wheeled his chair over to a shelf, one crammed with hundreds of 8-bit Nintendo games. “Kirby’s Adventure” was the first title to fall into his grasping fist, so that was his choice. He wheeled back to the system and plugged it in. The controllers, interestingly, weren’t plugged in; they were hardwired into the system.

The game began. How does this work? A button to jump? B button to suck in enemies? Childish. He blasted through the first stage with ease. It wasn’t until the second stage that he realized that by sucking in enemies you could steal their powers. He stole someone’s sword and his pink puffball began waving it around with glee. Crumley cracked a grin.

He’d already established that the system worked, but now that he was actually playing a game, he decided to see if he could complete the first world. The boss monster came at him and, after losing a life, Crumley discovered he could simply spit the boss’s own projectiles back at him to fight back. Victory was his! Kirby danced a little jig, and Crumley inflated himself with triumph. In the second world, Crumley discovered that Kirby, filled with air, could float indefinitely; he flew over a pile of enemies chortling.

Quite a few hours later, he’d finished the third world and was well on his way through the fourth, trying to blink away sleep as he did so. He had a glimmer now of something he’d never seen before. In the wee hours of that Christmas, he began to understand for the first time why people bothered to collect these old games. Or why they meant so much to them in the first place.

He felt like he could easily beat Kirby in a single evening. Wouldn’t that be an accomplishment? But sleep was overpowering him. He decided that he’d just set his head down on the table, and maybe nap for an hour or two, before waking up and finishing the game. That would be a good way to spend Christmas. He eyes closed and consciousness slipped away.

*     *     *

The glass rattled under the intensity of the knocking, shaking loose the crust of last night’s snow. Crumley awoke with a start, a strand of drool connecting his mouth to the desk. The Nintendo controller still hung limply from his hand. What was that noise? What time was it?

With a start, Crumley realized he’d slept the night and already his client was here to buy the prototype. He leapt to his feet and shuffled to the door, his tired legs protesting.

He couldn’t really see the face of the buyer; his hood was drawn up, and his long black coat hung so low as to dust the floor as he walked inside. Crumley muttered greetings and apologies as he stutter-stepped along next to the enormous figure. How tall was he? Six foot? Six foot two?

“I trust the prototype is in working condition? Yes, yes, very good,” whispered the buyer upon seeing Kirby on the television screen. He withdrew an enormous checkbook, old, leathery, and worn. “I shall make the check out to Thomas R. Crumley?” he asked.

Crumley didn’t remember ever giving him his middle name. “Yes,” he said, his eyes suddenly glazing over. Thirteen thousand dollars!

The buyer’s gloved fingers hesitated above the bank note. His hood turned slowly to the left, then to the right, taking stock of his surroundings. “What say you and I, we make it an even fifteen thousand … for your whole collection?”

With a start Crumley realized he’d still neglected to wipe away the drool hanging from his lips from his earlier sleep. Startled, he ran his dusty sleeve across his mouth, only to have more drool take its place. “Ye—yes! Take it! Take it all!” Crumley knew he couldn’t possibly have had more than fifteen hundred dollars worth of merchandise in his shop.

With a frightfully loud tear, the check was removed from the register. Crumley took it from the buyer’s hands and examined it. Fifteen thousand! The buyer’s name was listed as “Christmas Past, Present, and Future,” which didn’t surprise Crumley, as it was clear that it was a company check.

Oddly enough, he couldn’t for the life of him remember how the buyer had removed the merchandise. One minute he was holding the check, the next he was muttering his thanks and deadbolting the door. He returned to his leather chair, spun around happily, and then added another check to his “to do” register. Then, playfully, he wrote underneath it: “Finish Kirby’s Adventure.”

He spun around to resume play, but where his TV once stood there was nothing but an empty patch in the dust. Kirby was gone. Moreover, ALL his games were gone – not a one remained. Crumley cleared his throat and it echoed about the empty room eerily. All that remained of any of Crumley’s collection was the bundle that the artist had given him – empty now, but for a small nametag showing the starving man’s address. Crumley shoved the card in his pocket. For once in his life, he wanted to play games … and now he had none!

Slumped in his chair in total silence, Crumley fought off a deep, hollow depression.

Then out into the snow he went, Christmas lights all around him. Maybe he could stop by the thrift store and score an old Nintendo? But no, they were all closed for Christmas day. He paused at the bank to deposit his massive check at the ATM. Who would have an old system that he could play? Nobody! Well, save for that Artist fellow he’d sold the Nintendo 64 to. Maybe he should buy a new system? One of those fancy X-box dealies? He’d always wanted to take one apart. Now, of course, he actually wanted to play with one.

Crumley paced through the snow, lifting up his collar against the chill air. He stared at the artist’s address. Those kids probably wanted to play with one, too. The artist had, after all, brought him more income than he could possibly deserve in a single month. He quickened his pace and walked into the mall.

The stores were empty save but a couple last-minute shoppers. Crumley strode purposefully into Gaming Gigabuys. “That Xbox! That there – the GameCube! And … those games!” he said to an angry man in a tattered fluffy bear costume. “Give me TWO OF EACH!”

“Are you nuts?” the guy in the bear suit asked.

“No!” he answered, eyes twinkling. “I’m getting MINE!”

That morning he arrived at the artist’s house with two shopping carts brimming with games, one of which was meant to stay. Despite all the new hardware, he spent all morning playing Super Smash Bros. on the Nintendo 64 with the man and his kids.

Naturally, he played as Kirby.

[Happy Holidays from Fargo and Hot Soup! The Daily Victim will return Tuesday December 31.]

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"Oh ho ho! Oh Kirby! Oh, you pink little miscreant, how your antics amuse me!"

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What if a game were so good that anyone playing it dropped off the face of the Earth? How would you find out about it?

I’ve been playing the Army computer game for months. Where’s my money for college?

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