Imagine cancer, that slow insidious death that kills you from the inside, but which is also intrinsically you; it is a body eating itself, and unable to heal. Now imagine that cancer can grow faster whenever you do what you're best at: dancing, painting, coding software, kayaking. This is what happens to characters with Power Degeneration.
The causes can vary. It may be that the process used to make the Clone, Half-Human Hybrid or genetically enhanced character with Super Soldier powers had an inadvertent (or intentional) design flaw (or "birth defect") that slowly reduces their lifespan, limiting their lives to years or months. Other times it's related to having somehow gained Stock Super Powers. Maybe it was thanks to Psycho Serum, or the machine/amulet that gave them their powers was broken. Lastly, the powers may just inherently damage the body when used, either as a mystical price or because they are not designed for human use (or rather, the body wasn't given the Required Secondary Powers to handle using the primary ones). Whatever the case, the result is the same: acute "hardware failure" as the body tears itself up from the inside. If they're lucky, they won't cause a Superpower Meltdown that takes out the city.
This last case might be survivable, provided the powers only hurt the owner when used. But it often happens that merely possessing them accelerates the process of aging or the decay. By not using their Super Mode or magic powers they can live normal lives... but The Call Knows Where You Live, so this is rarely an outright option.
The former scenario is usually incurable; it's so hard to Find the Cure that an entire series can be based around it. The reason is that the clone, hybrid or GM baby would have to fundamentally alter themselves to not be what they are, either by fixing the flaw or becoming plain humans. This can involve finding a geneticist who can make a gene therapy capable of repairing their DNA, a magic ritual that rids them of their human/non-human half, or somehow completely excising what separates them from baseline humanity and being Brought Down to Normal. These people have a very good reason for wanting to be normal.
While the character is afflicted with Power Degeneration, their body will also visibly decay in one or more stylized ways.
- Rapid aging is a common representation: gray hairs, wrinkled skin and other signs of aging are surprisingly tame compared to some of the rest.
- Signs of frailty and illness, much like those seen in This Is Your Brain on Evil.
- The character gets a Lovecraftian Superpower or two as their body is corrupted from the inside. This may be followed by going One-Winged Angel, but the transformation never goes up the Bishonen Line. These powers are the "blessed" in Blessed with Suck. And death.
- The body crystallizes, develops Volcanic Veins or Tainted Veins, slowly falls apart (limbs falling out, extremities disintegrating) or somehow visibly and inhumanly shows itself dying.
Faced with all that, is it any wonder some characters choose to use a less than savory alternatives to extend their life? They might steal the Life Energy of others, discover You Are Who You Eat, or transfer their sickness/symptoms onto others.
Anime and Manga
- This happens to almost every character in Ayashi no Ceres whose ten'nyo powers are awakened, aside from the heroine and a few who get killed in other ways before their powers can kill them. It seems like they live longer the stronger their powers are, but actually using said powers seems to shorten their lifespan considerably.
- As incomplete Dhampyr, the Schiff in Blood Plus need the blood of a vampire queen to stabilize, otherwise they turn to crystal. Yes, crystal. The ailment is called the Thorn.
- Some of the Contractors of Darker than Black fall under this. People whose 'Renumeration' is irreversible can only use them a limited number of times. Most notably, this includes the shape-shifter who grows older every time she uses her power, eventually dying from old age because of it, and Amber, who could reverse or stop time, but became younger every time she used it, eventually fading from existence altogether.
- Shion in the second season is typically in a wheelchair due to his remuneration. He eventually dies from using his power to copy the entire planet.
- Tsukune, in Rosario + Vampire, erodes a little bit of his soul every time he uses his superpowers.
- As a half-demon with an Unstoppable Rage Super Mode, Inuyasha will eventually get stuck in that form unless he keeps the sword Tessaiga by his side at all times. All things considered this works well in his favor since the sword also gives him many powerful attacks his Unstoppable Rage couldn't match.
- Whenever Naruto releases enough of the power of the Kyuubi, an aura surrounds him that actually eats away at his body. Due to the super-regeneration that the Kyuubi also grants him, his cells are forced to split ahead of their biological schedule to overcome the damage - basically super-aging to heal himself, shortening his lifespan in the process. Earlier on, Tsunade also demonstrated such regeneration.
- Also it was revealed that the Mangekyo Sharingan causes blindness after extended use.
- Black Star from Soul Eater has his soul slowly eaten away at whenever he uses Tsubaki's Demon Blade mode. When Black Star's soul wavelength attack on Kid fails, Sid explains that it is because his current inferiority complex about his strength has weakened his soul. We see just how well Black Star gets over this, when following Arachne's Kishin transformation his soul wavelength becomes strong enough to hold back the witch's insanity, aiding Soul and Maka's musical intervention.
- Yoite of Nabari no Ou pretty much defines this trope.
- Grove in Vampire Hunter D is in the latest stages of this.
- In Death Note , humans can acquire the ability to see people's names and lifespans at the cost of half their own life.
- In Witchblade it is an inevitability that all who are equipped with and use a Witchblade or Cloneblade will eventually but gradually crack and crumble into ash. To make things worse, it is impossible to remove a Witchblade without slicing off your hand and wrist with it.
- Chrono Crusade has an interesting variation of this. When Chrono uses his powers, he doesn't suffer any sort of decay -- Rosette does, as they're powered by her soul. In the best circumstances, she's only expected to live until thirty. Since Chrono has a Bodyguard Crush on her, he's not really happy about this.
- In D Gray Man, anyone with a parasite-type Innocence tends to have a much shorter than average life expectancy, even outside of the whole "constantly fighting freaky-ass monsters" issue. Considering that this includes the hero, it's no wonder he's The Woobie.
- In the 2003 anime version of Fullmetal Alchemist, using the Philosopher's Stone for Grand Theft Me causes alchemical degeneration of the new body. This process is slow, but increases in speed the more times you've done it. Hohenheim, who's been more sparing, was able to stay in his current body for at least twenty years without much visible decay, while Dante had her bodies starting to degenerate after mere months.
- In Macross Frontier, V-Type microbes allow the infected to communicate with Vajra, but they are also slowly killing the brain of that person. Now there are medicaments which, while not able to heal it, can strongly slow down the process giving the infected more time to live, but Sheryl refuses to use them as she needs stronger Vajra link for Macross to win...
- In One Piece, the Psycho Serum steroids that Hodi Jones and his gang took to power themselves up had the downside of cutting their lifespan down by a large amount. In this case it caused accelerated aging to the point that a short while after their defeat they're seen as ancient and decrepit old fishmen too powerless to do anything.
- Chamber, one of the Generation X mutants had an explosive power that blew off his jaw and upper chest prior to joining the team. Using his power slowly widened the explosive area, he near literally had part of his face and chest "on fire".
- This trope is the entire premise of Strikeforce: Morituri. Human volunteers went through a dangerous process to earn superpowers so they could combat Alien Invaders. Catch is, theprocess was guaranteed to kill them sometime within the next year after gaining their powers—in some cases, mere days after.
- In a Captain America (comics) storyline we'd otherwise rather forget, Cap's Super Serum was actually breaking down and taking his body with it. What might have been an interesting turn of story led directly to both the horrible "Iron Cap" storyline and the defection of Diamondback (who secretly agreed to go back to work for the bad guys in exchange for Cap's cure).
- Due to the poisonous nature of adamantium, Wolverine's skeleton and claws slowly kill him on those occasions when his mutant powers are disabled. And he can't use the claws, either, for obvious blood-loss-from-the-hands reasons.
- Every time Monster Girl from Invincible uses her power (to change into a superpowered monster), she gets younger. It's eventually determined that it's due to her body being reconstructed incorrectly.
- Gentle in New X-Men can temporarily increase his muscle mass to gain Hulk-level strength, but the strain on his body causes him seizures. His power is held in check somewhat by vibranium tattoos, but since his powers get stronger with every use, eventually the tattoos won't work and and his powers will kill him.
- In Stormwatch: Team Achilles, one antagonist has Super Empowering as one of his abilities, but the people he empowers eventually burn out and die.
- Immortal Man-In-Darkness of The Great Ten is a pilot bonded to the Dragonwing, an extremely advanced living fighter plane. Each flight of the Dragonwing takes a year off of the pilot's life.
- Wally West aka Kid Flash, was slowing down with each use of his powers. However, during the tail-end of Crisis on Infinite Earths, Firestorm was able to save him in the nick of time from the Anti-Monitor's energy blast, but the blast ended up saving him from his degeneration, though sticking him at "speed of sound" running levels. Suited him just fine as he took up the mantle of the Flash.
- During the Dark Reign period of Marvel comics, Carol Danvers was having this issue to the point where her energy powers caused her to just explode.
- The main character of the Mass Effect 2 fanfic Pariah suffers from this. Whenever she uses her biotics it inflames the tissue of her lungs, causing her to cough blood. In the second to last chapter, she performs a last stand and uses her biotics until she's curled up and choking on her own necrotic lung tissue. She killed the bastards though.
- The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Prince Koura ages considerably (at least a decade) each time he uses his powers of black magic.
- Star Wars: Excessive use of the dark side of the force, particularly force lightning had this effect on Darth Sidious, turning him from a relatively healthy if somewhat elderly man into a decrepit monster with winkled grey sagging skin, rotten teeth and burning yellow eyes.
- That particular instance was due at least in part to Windu blocking the lightning right next to Sidious' face, reflecting some lighting into his face and damaging it.
- The expanded universe delved deeper into this, revealing that Sidious would transfer his mind into clone bodies to restore his youth, but his dark side powers constantly caused each body to degenerate very quickly.
- David Brin's Kil'n People revolves around the various effects of "dittoes", golem-like copies of individual humans that only last for 24 hours but can have their memories downloaded into the original. As their time starts to run out their bodies begin turning back into clay. Note that they can be preserved by stuffing them into a fridge. The hero's girlfriend does this with a fresh copy in case he gets lonely.
- Male channelers (read: magicians) in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time. The male half of One Power, saidin, was tainted by the Dark One, so that now all the male channelers unavoidably will go mad. The few that survive the madness and avoid being caught then start rotting while alive... That is, until Rand manages to cleanse the saidin.
- 18-year-old Janie in the books Wake and Fade by Lisa Mc Mann. Janie has the ability to see other people's dreams. Unfortunately, she can barely control it. In Fade, one of the longest living "Dream Catchers", as people with that ability are called, leaves Janie a journal. Apparently, Janie will lose her eyesight and the use of her hands by the age of 24. She will only be able to see in dreams.
- In the Vorkosigan Saga there's Sgt. Taura, the genetically engineered super-soldier. She has incredible strength and fast reflexes, but was not made to last. She was deliberately engineered to have a short lifespan and die quickly once she started showing serious signs of age. The Fleet doctor has slowed her metabolism and bought her a few more years.
- The dilemma in the book series Magic or Madness. Either you use your magic and die at a young age (somewhere between your teen years and maybe age 45 at the outside if you're sparing about it, you die when the magic runs out), or you don't use it and go insane.
- A minor superhero in Soon I Will Be Invincible is mentioned to have undergone this. His powers slowly killed him and drove him insane, driving him to attack his old team-mates, while his previously invisible forcefield degenerate, becoming weaker, blue and tainted with ozone.
- Cordelia in Angel was being slowly and painfully killed by her prophetic visions. Humans are incapable of hosting the visions for long without dying. For her, the solution was to turn her part demon. The upgrade came with other perks; being Demonically Possessed by one of TPTB was not one of them.
- Heroes has Mohinder's transformation in season 3.
- And now Hiro, whose powers give him a brain tumor.
- Kyle XY, in general.
- The Orphenochs in Kamen Rider Faiz have this as well; if they wear the Kaixa Belt, they go down even faster.
- A male nurse on The 4400 had the ability to cure genetic defects in utero, but random mutations appeared in his own DNA.
- At the end of season 4 of the new Doctor Who, Donna is given the consciousness of a Time Lord, but the strain is too much for a human brain and it starts killing her, so the Doctor has to wipe her memory of all the time they spent together and leave her on Earth.
- The teen Super Speedsters in The X-Files episode "Rush" have a decent number of Required Secondary Powers, but their bodies are still gradually breaking down from the stress. An X-ray of one shows the sort of damage normally found in people who've played professional football for 15 years.
- In Sanctuary, John Druitt's ability to teleport across time and space causes his cells to break down, and is also responsible for the brain damage that turned him into a homicidal maniac.
- It was later revealed that he had actually been possessed by an Energy Being, and that's what drove him insane. Though, the more often he uses his power, the more control it has over him, so this might be a double subversion.
- In Stargate SG-1, any human who uses an Ancient Repository gains all the knowledge of the most advanced species ever to walk the galaxy, as well as some nifty extras if they stick it out long enough. However since human minds aren't advanced enough to handle it this comes at the cost of overclocking their brain to the point of rapid mental degeneration and death.
- An Outer Limits episode has a scientist accidentally develop a serum that appears to give people (and monkeys) a Healing Factor (a monkey took a dose of cyanide without a problem). The Corrupt Corporate Executive refuses to reveal the miracle to the world but uses it on himself to cure a hereditary disease. However, the scientist then realizes that the serum doesn't give you healing powers after all but merely forces the cells to use up all their energy on healing, leaving behind a withered husk. The executive (his brother) is destined to spend the rest of his days on life support.
- In hindsight, the executive's decision shows that Straw Man Has a Point, although for a different reason.
- Happens to a human prize fighter in an episode of Lost Girl—it's said that the Fae-derived serum that allows him to Hulk Out will cause his internal organs to explode if he hulks out one more time.
- In Rifts, one character class is "Juicers", which can be described as somebody on steroids on steroids. You wear a drug-injection rig and your lifespan is under a decade.
- The Magic: The Gathering card Unstable Mutation grants the enchanted creature a significant power spike...that becomes less significant every turn, and after three, it actually starts to get weaker.
- Warhammer 40,000: Psykers get a double-shot of awfulness: not only does the act of using their powers leave the potential of letting a Warp daemon take over their body and open a Warp Rift with their mind, but many of the granted abilities take a severe toll on the body, leaving them exhausted, injured through strain and sometimes dead from the brain literally tearing itself apart. How to avoid this and still be a functioning psyhic? Heavy cybernetic augmentation, or "soul binding" which tends to do things like pop your eyeballs and kill all your emotions. All things considered though, this is a small price to pay to potentially be an incredibly powerful being in an unbelievably brutal an unforgiving galaxy.
- A relatively obscure alternate form of spellcasting in Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 called chaos casting has this as a caveat : instead of using a spell slot system with a limited selection of spells, chaos casting allows the caster to create every spell on the fly and casting deals nonlethal damage that can only be healed by a full night rest to the caster. Except every spell requires a Spellcraft check to succeed (difficulty depending on the level of the spell created), and failing has a chance to apply a permanent negative effect to the caster who either slowly goes insane or suffers awful physical transformations. Too many failures lead to permanent, irreversible death.
- Stars Without Number/Other Dust has "torching" for psychics out of power, but pushing on, or not properly trained. It causes permanent neural damage and enough of it leads to death or raving insanity. While usually this doesn't happen due to external influences. Right until it did everywhere at once and usually all the way through.
- Genesis in Final Fantasy VII Crisis Core has a defect in his creation, and slowly gets white hair and has his red jacket go ashy throughout the game. (I'm guessing his jacket is like a mood ring for his health.) As the game goes on Genesis' copies show the same degeneration.
- The same thing also happens to Angeal and his copies, including Lazard.
- Beating the shit out of Genesis's One-Winged Angel form results in him getting better.
- The same thing also happens to Angeal and his copies, including Lazard.
- Metroid Prime 3: Corruption has this happen to Samus.
- Happens to Shiki in Tsukihime where using his magic eyes that can see death stresses his brain from it attempting to understand what it's not supposed to. In addition to repeated use of his eyes, merely having them is hinted to have permanent effects that will lower his lifespan.
- The Nasuverse must like this trope because it also happens to Shirou in Fate/stay night in all three routes from using magic above his level, particularly in Heaven's Feel when he gets Archer's arm grafted onto him. Interestingly, rather than merely physical corruption there is also mental corruption, and he starts to lose memories and the ability to form coherent thoughts.
- "Charged" creations in the Geneforge series are infused with so much energy that they constantly lose health each round. In exchange, they're significantly more powerful than the normal versions and cost only a little more essence.
- In Phantom Brave the power that originally banished Sulphur called "Burgundy" will kill its user if it's used too often.
- The True Runes of the Suikoden series are an unusual case. If they aren't used, the Runes halt the aging of their bearers, rendering them effectively immortal. However, the True Runes are the Pieces of God in this setting, and are understandably difficult for mere mortals to control. With some of the more volatile True Runes, such as the Rune of Punishment and the Sun Rune, insanity and death are almost inevitable. It doesn't help that the Runes seem to have minds of their own, and seem to somehow manipulate their Bearers into situations where they have to use the Runes' power.
- It's revealed in BlazBlue Continuum Shift that Ragna's fake Azure Grimoire (which is really a piece of the Black Beast) will consume him if he unleashes its full power too often. This is probably why he was so reluctant to use it in Calamity Trigger.
- Deathwing's skin in World of Warcraft is split open by his inability to contain his power, which threatens to destroy him entirely. He solves this by riveting plates of the strongest metal he can find directly onto his body to keep it in one piece, and as one might expect, is in constant agony.
- The Grey Wardens of Dragon Age are required to drink the poisonous blood of darkspawn during their initiation rite; if they survive, this makes them better able to fight the darkspawn (and able to sense them at a distance). However, some recruits die during the initiation, most recruits suffer from nightmares and increased appetite, and all Grey Wardens have shortened lifespans: "thirty years to live, give or take" from the time of initiation. The Wardens don't tell new recruits about any of this, because they believe almost nobody would join if they knew, and that their mission of protecting the world from the darkspawn is more important than their lives.
- In Tira's ending in Soul Calibur IV, Nightmare's body can no longer withstand its own power. Tira clings to him, tearfully begging him not to leave her alone. He doesn't.
- In Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, Ryu links with the Dragon Odjn. This grants Ryu the power to change into an nigh invincible draconic being but each use of his dragon powers brings Ryu closer to death (represented by the D-Counter). Even worse, the D-Counter still rises throughout the game even if Ryu never uses his powers.
- Ysengrin from Gunnerkrigg Court suffers from a somewhat logical version of this: He has the power to control wood and spends all his time with his body encased inside man-shaped armour made from animated wood. As a result his natural body has atrophied from disuse, to the degree that he is barely able to move outside the wooden armour. In addition, the Power At a Price nature of borrowing one of Coyote's powers means his body shakes uncontrollably at times.
- In one episode of Jimmy Neutron, the main characters get super powers. However, it would eventually kill them if they overused them. Unfortunately they were using them obtusely, and the Teen Genius who discovered the sideffects and could reverse it became a Hulk like figure.
- All the clones in Danny Phantom easily dissolve from too much excessive power use. That's because they were stepping stones to the Perfect Clone. Danielle, the one before the Perfect Clone gets lucky as Danny eventually stabilizes her.
- ReBoot: After fusing with a broken Glitch, Bob's overuse of his new powers would eventually result in total fragmentation (aka death). This is shown as Bob becoming transparent and staticy. Bob is able to delay the process by consuming extra energy shakes to hold himself together. This problem gets fixed when Bob separates from Glitch.
- In one episode of Batman Beyond, Bane's supersteroid Venom causes this. A lifetime of Venom use has left Bane a comatose and broken man dependent on Venom and hooked up on life support 24-7. Unfortunately Bane had already gave the Venom formula to his live in nurse who became drug dealer.
- The page picture comes from All Star Superman. After getting a lethal level of solar exposure from flying too close to the sun, Superman gets a massive power up... and will eventually turn into an Energy Being.
- One episode of Darkwing Duck had Darkwing gain Super Speed as a result of being hit with a time-accelerating weapon by Negaduck. When he used his newfound power, he did everything at a faster rate, including aging faster.
- Doping: you gets better in sport, break records, win the love of the crowds... and overexert your body while developing drug addiction and shortening your lifespan. Enjoy your glory.
- Blood doping, which is the process of removing some of your blood, allowing your body to make more, and then injecting the blood back into your body. Why? Well, more blood means more oxygen is carried from your lungs to your limbs, which lets you push yourself harder. Oh, but it greatly increases your chances of a heart attack or other painfully destructive type of infarction. Have fun and be safe!
- Anabolic steroids.