A great dad makes sure his son is better than he was. If you measure fatherhood by the accomplishments of offspring, then I've got substantial evidence that I'm the world's best dad. Well, one of the best, at least. Outside of maybe George H.W. Bush or Archie Manning. My evidence: I coached my 5-year-old son, Luke, through the OG 1986 The Legend of Zelda. We teamed up to curb-stomp one of the all-time bullies of gamedom, my arm around Luke's shoulder, barking Mickey Goldmill-like direction as he dutifully freed the tiny version of Hyrule downloaded on his 3DS.
"Zelda One," as Luke calls it, is as archaic and impenetrable as Latin Mass—and at least as holy. It sticks you in a forest of cruelly hidden secrets inside of secrets, thumb-burning battles and sanity-draining dungeons. Its idea of a tutorial is to start you off in front of a cave, which you'd better enter and accept a Nerf-like twig that's an excuse for a sword. From there it's up to you to venture off in any direction, with no advice as to the right way to go, slogging screen-by-screen through gantlets oozing with monsters that spit rocks, hurl spears or pounce on you.
Beating such a game is a daunting enough task for an adult, let alone a 5-year-old. But Luke has yet to learn the art of backing down from hellacious challenges. And also, I sorta Inceptioned him with the desire.
By far the best aspect of fatherhood is the ability to force your obsessions onto your kid, shaping his Play-Doh-like psyche in your own demented image.
Are 5-year-old boys supposed to be obsessed with games that came out 26 years ago? Is it normal for them to watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy at age 3 or quote Eminem and Tupac as toddlers? Are they supposed to be named after Star Wars characters? (At least we didn't go with Boba). It doesn't really matter, because dads write their own rules.
So, yeah, the Twilight Princess poster I hung above his crib when he was a baby, the Wind Waker Link plush figure (don't call it a doll) I got him for his first Christmas and the crappy 1980s Zelda cartoons I'd fed him along with baby formula nourished his Zelda lust. And taking him to the Symphony of the Goddesses orchestra tour only sealed the deal. Luke and Zelda One had been on a collision course since birth.
This isn't the first time Luke and Phil Villarreal have appeared in Kotaku. Back in 2007, when Luke was just an infant, Phil encouraged him to crawl by using an Xbox 360 controller as bait. "I cruelly had to take [it] from him afterward for fear he'd slobber it to death." Phil recalls.
Still, I wasn't sure he was ready. Luke had taken on tough games before — Mega Man 10, Super Mario 3D Land and Super Smash Bros. Brawl — but never anything of Zelda's caliber. Although he'd wanted to play it ever since I downloaded the game as part of Nintendo's "free" 3DS ambassador program, I discouraged him from taking it on.
Maybe that was my subconscious way of reverse-psyching him toward his inevitable clash with Zelda 1.
Eventually, he used his formidable pre-schooler whining powers to convince me to help him along. Having never beaten the first quest — I was content with going with the Nintendo Power suggestion of typing in "ZELDA" as my name and skipping to the second — I was intrigued enough to fill a hole in my gaming resume and bond with my son in a single burst.
Zelda One was about to become a 5-year-old's beyotch, and I was gonna help.
In stretches of an hour or so each day before bedtime — taking down a level every other day or so — Luke and I hunkered down to snatch Triforce pieces and rack up Octorok scalps. What sticks in the memory are the post boss-battle high-fives and fist bumps. When Link hoisted a Triforce piece into the air after each victory, the glow in Luke's eyes eclipsed that of the screen.
Our Zelda One bond grew stronger between sessions, as Luke's love of the material boiled over into wholesale infatuation. He built Gleeok out of Mega Blocks, drew pictures of Link shooting his sword with power on a Magna Doodle and fashioned Wizzrobes out of Tinker Toys.
His creativity burgeoned during a week in which I banned him from gaming because he wrecked his sister's train set. He would pull out his mom's old synthesizer and try to mimic the overworld theme. He'd set up bed pillows as dungeon rooms complete with traps and bombable walls. He forced me to pantomime the Level 1 Aquamentus battle with the frequency of Cirque de Soleil acrobats in training.
It was probably tougher on me to wait a week to continue the game than it was for him. Helping Luke through a level was more rewarding than completing it myself. Hell, it was more rewarding than potty training the kid.
I could fudge a little and proclaim Luke to be the Doogie Howser of NES, but there were many times—for the sake of brevity and sanity preservation—I took control of the 3DS and cleared his path to success. You can forgive me for that, right? What kind of dad would make his kid grind to rack up the 250 rupees it takes to buy the damned blue ring from that usurious bastard in the cave? And Child Protective Services probably would have seized him had I not stepped in and cracked a virtual 40-ounce bottle of vengeful whoop-ass over the skulls of blue Darknuts that cornered my boy in Level 7. Disclosure: I only poured out whoop-ass on them after they poured it out on me more times than I'd care to admit, forcing me to go out and grab some red potion to show them what was what.
And Level 9, known as Death Mountain? I played just about the entire thing, studiously following an online walkthrough so I could nab the red ring and silver arrow, then spelunk through the labyrinth of hidden warp passages to make it to Ganon's threshold.
I drew the line at fighting bosses for Luke. Granted, I'd share the secrets of how to take them out easily. That well-placed bombs could do in Manhandla and Gleeok. That Digdogger shrinks when he hears the whistle. That your arrows will do no good against Gohma unless she stupidly opens her armored eye. And most importantly, that Dodongo dislikes smoke.
Maybe I went a little overboard in my help. When left alone to explore, he proved surprisingly capable, discovering the White Sword and the entrance to Death Mountain on his own in the time it took for me to take a whiz.
Ganon killed me about 50 times before I beat him when I was eight. My 5-year-old boy slew the Great King of Evil on his third try.
When we finally got to Ganon, he was so proud that he abandoned me and forced his oblivious mom to watch him take on his nemesis. All along, he'd asked me how many times Ganon had killed me when I was 8 before I managed to take him down, and I told him probably 50 times. Which made him all the more happy when he shivved the Great King of Evil with a silver arrow on his third try.
After the end credits flashed by, his euphoria was replaced with sadness when he saw that Link had lost all his hard-earned weapons and heart containers, only to find himself back at the start screen, the opening cave beckoning.
"Back where I started," he said, thankfully oblivious to the fact that he had advanced to the second quest. As much fun as it was to kick Zelda One's ass with him, another go-round would have surely yielded diminishing returns.
Then he managed to get some perspective, retreating to take solace in his precocious conquest.
"Dad, it took you 50 tries to beat Ganon when you were 8, but I beat him on the third time, and I'm only 5, so that means I'm better than you."
I stifled a chuckle. He would not let the matter drop.
"I'm better than you. Right, Dad?"
"I hope so."
(Top image by Jessica Villarreal)