Sorting Algorithm of Evil

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

Wally: "I've decided to dabble in crime. I need some henchmen. Are you in?"
Asok "What does a henchman do?"
Wally: "A henchman's job is to be gunned down in reverse order to his importance."
Asok: "How important am I?"
Wally: "I wouldn't pack a lunch for orientation day."

Dilbert, strip for May 12, 2009

Villains will appear in strictly ascending order by menace.

This trope has ancient roots. Possibly the earliest example, at least in the English language, is the Older Than Print epic Beowulf. It just makes good sense that as our heroes fight the forces of evil, they should get better at fighting the forces of evil. So as the story progresses, the fights should get easier and easier. Of course, an easy fight is just bad drama, so you have to consistently increase the threat the heroes face. This results in the Sorting Algorithm of Evil. The first villain you meet is the weakest, and the last is the strongest. As the heroes get strong enough to defeat their current enemy, a new enemy will emerge that forces them to reach another skill level. It would be an Anticlimax if the hero defeated the Baddest Ass and spent the remaining time contending with lesser baddies.

There are several ways to justify this; due to Lowered Monster Difficulty, the current villain usually Forgot To Level Grind while the heroes are out collecting Twenty Bear Asses and are Gonna Fly Now thereby outclassing him. This at least provides an in-story explanation for the Lamarckian evolution of evil from one bad guy to the next. In some cases the Big Bad the heroes defeated last time was actually a mere member of a powerful organization. The others can show up to avenge their fallen comrade, so now we have the previous big bad times two or more. In a series centering around military technology this can be explained by technological progress. The heroes will get new weapons, strategies, and better technology, but so will the enemy.

Occasionally, a particularly strong or evil villain will ignore this trope and arrive early to beat the hell out of the heroes, only to leave them alive because they're Not Worth Killing. Villains who use this as a tool are often Not So Harmless. Sometimes, rather than toss a stronger villain at the heroes the writer might decide to surprise them with an Outside Context Villain that uses different tactics than brute force.

A problem comes up if a long-running show goes past its first Grand Finale. We may believe that the Evil Overlord is enough of a tactical dunce to think that sending his henchmen out in ascending order was a valid strategy. But why should the new, unrelated, Big Bad happen to be even stronger? Sometimes the Big Bads might form a string of Men Behind The Men, making this structure more sensible. Although this leads to new Fridge Logic issues: why doesn't the Man Most Behind use the unimaginable power of his position to just wipe all the heroes out? If the first Big Bad is only a local terror, bigger bads may not have even been aware of the heroes. The increasing threats they face are a reflection of the threat they pose to the ultimate boss.

Another downside of this trope is viewers who get into a show later may find early villains lame by comparison when they go back to catch up - "Pshaw -- we're supposed to be worried about this guy? He can't even blow up a galaxy!" Villain Decay can be used to soften this blow; if the Big Bad ends the season a lot lamer than he started, the next season's enemy doesn't have to actually be any stronger to give the impression of an increasing level of tension.

This trope is particularly common in Role Playing Games and Video Games: the more and stronger enemies you fight, the more experience and power you get. You also get the magical weapons and armors they drop. You have no chance against mid-game monster with starting character, but by the time you get to them, you are ready.

Related to Convenient Questing where ascending menace is laid out geographically, and the player must proceed through these regions in strictly ascending order by menace.[1]

When this happens involving entire breeds/species of villains, it's changing the Villain Pedigree. If it's because various villains were sealed away it's Sealed Cast in a Multipack. If a particularly powerful villain remains on screen for too long and can't keep up, compare Lowered Monster Difficulty.

See also Sliding Scale of Villain Threat, which breaks down the scales of villainy.

Compare Always a Bigger Fish, Lensman Arms Race, So Last Season, Sequel Escalation.

Examples of Sorting Algorithm of Evil include:

Anime and Manga

  • Dragon Ball Z:
    • The original gives characters an explicit numerical "Combat Rating".[2] This held out until the middle of the Frieza arc, when the devices that were used to calculate these combat ratings were destroyed; at this point, the Big Bad's strongest form had a rating of around one hundred and twenty million, whereas just two months earlier the heroes had been hard-pressed to deal with an opponent nearly seven thousand times weaker (Vegeta, then at 18,000). The plot helps support the progression; Raditz arrived first, and called on a pair of stronger allies; the heroes went after their boss next; the next Big Bad was created from said boss's cells, plus those of the powered-up heroes, and so on. The final villain was a mild subversion because, while its final form was considerably weaker than form beforehand, its unique physiology made it nearly impossible to kill and its nature became far more merciless. If you go back to watch the series again, you soon realize that even the first fight was equally as tough as the last. The numerical concepts of "power levels" were quietly dropped after the Frieza saga, as they were starting to get to ridiculously high levels (in the first few episodes, a power level over 1000 was impressive, whereas by the end of the Frieza saga, Goku and the Big Bad were in the hundreds of millions. It seems the hero increases in power just enough to get totally beaten by the next big bad. While there are episodes where Goku casually dispatches villains who fought toe-to-toe with him in his youth, these are naturally filler.
    • Starting from Frieza and continuing onward, each Big Bad was the most powerful and dangerous being in the universe, even more so than the previous most powerful and dangerous being in the universe.
    • Subverted in the special Yo! Son Goku and His Friends Return!!, in which an alien menace arrives and is easily defeated, because it arrived a bit too late in the chronology, and everyone was so enormously powerful that it really didn't ever have a chance at all.
    • Subverted in Dragon Ball GT, where the new Big Bad turned out to be pathetically weak, but had the ability to possess the bodies of the various insanely superpowered supporting characters surrounding the hero.
  • Robotech carried this off by declaring that Zentradi < Masters < Invid. Robotech: Shadow Chronicles added The Children of the Shadow to this progression. However the Zentreadi are, in absolute terms, far, far more powerful than their creators, the Robotech Masters. The defenders take them down by exploiting a couple of secret weapons and the Zentraedi's special weaknesses, the biggest single battle of all three Robotech Wars comes in the first one, wiping out most of Earth's population and wrecking civilization. Afterward, the heroes are much weakened when they face the Robotech Masters and are even weaker when the Invid come. The Invid, too, are weaker by far than they once were.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh and Yu-Gi-Oh GX presented villains not only in ascending order by menace, but also, for some reason, effeminateness. For instance, the first Big Bad in season 1 of GX was a withered old man; Season 2's villain was a younger, more strapping adult male. Season 3 had a Hermaphrodite Duel Monster. Of course, the effeminateness of the villain ties directly into their personal interest towards the hero. At first, the Big Bad is usually just interested in a certain trinket or item carried by the protagonist, while the next is usually more interested in the protagonist's actual abilities and strengths. The biggest of the Big Bads always seemed to have some kind of intimate interpersonal relationship with the hero, which would border on Ho Yay (since both sides in this series were invariably male), if only the Big Bad wasn't trying to enslave/murder them for some deep, scarring betrayal they blame on the protagonist. There are only two exceptions: Dartz, in the Doma Story Arc, and the Big Bad of the Capsule Monsters arc, which, as far as the rest of the series is concerned, never even happened. Even the original series (never released beyond Japan and taking place before the anime we all know and love) has most of the villains being random thugs met in chance encounters, fitting into the algorithm perfectly.
  • The opposition on Sailor Moon also sorted itself out into ascending levels of power per season, starting with the Dark Kingdom (which could barely field a single youma at a time) all the way up to Galaxia, who threatened the entire universe. The only exceptions seem to be Eiru and En who, regardless of probably being weaker than the last villains, had to face senshi with unusually strong attacks. Naturally this filler was forgotten later. It also seems to have been the original M.O. of the Amazon Trio, explaining their penchant for disguising themselves; likewise, there aren't real arc villains either. The strange thing is that the five big bosses of the villain groups (Queen Metaria, Death Phantom, Pharaoh 90, Queen Nehellenia, and Sailor Galaxia/Chaos) are all portrayed as having the same dark power to destroy or conquer the universe which would mean they were at the same level of power. In the manga, it's because they're all the same villain being reincarnated.
  • Codename: Sailor V, set before Sailor Moon and telling the story of Sailor Venus before she became part of the group appropriately has a big bad who though a threat to Sailor V is an extreme small fry in the scheme of things. He's one step below the first arc's Quirky Miniboss Squad being an underling of Kunzite. Codename: Sailor V debuted before Sailor Moon but wrapped up shortly after.
  • Naruto largely averts the algorithm by including fights between characters much stronger than the heroes throughout the story. The first major enemy, Zabuza, is so strong that the Genin can't be expected to hold their own against him (his Battle Butler, Haku, is even stronger than him). In addition, the Big Bad, Orochimaru, shows up in the second major arc. For the longest time, even the strongest characters could, at best, manage a tie against him. Through this, the heroes gain strength until they're able to hang with the big boys on their own. Once Orochimaru was defeated, however, the series has been heading more towards this, as two (possibly three) major villains turned out to be even stronger than him. Granted, one of the more recent antagonists is an internal one with more of a threat for his political influence than his physical power, and neither Orochimaru nor Itachi were actually beaten by the protagonists being stronger (Orochimaru was beaten at his weakest and then by Itachi, while Itachi turned out to have lost on purpose). This is mostly because in the beginning the main characters are fresh out of ninja school and there are so many levels of more powerful Big Good around. As the main characters catch up to the elder Big Good, this trope shows up more and more.
  • Largely averted by Hunter X Hunter. A notable secondary sometimes-friend-sometimes-foe character, Hisoka the Magician is introduced as one of the most dangerous men alive. Nearly three hundred chapters later (where the series appears to have permanently stalled), he's still one of the most dangerous men alive. The various enemies that the lead characters meet fluctuate wildly between "can kill them with a sneeze" to "wotta wimp!", with no real bearing on what point of the story they're at chronologically.
  • In One Piece as Luffy and crew get further along the Grand Line, they discover tougher opponents. The series isn't above throwing the odd curveball though, like Mihawk first appearing and dominating Zoro very early in the series, and Bellamy showing up and going down like a punk after the defeat of Crocodile. In contrast to major arc villains, Eneru is a bit of a subversion in that he is the most powerful and dangerous opponent Luffy has actually defeated, with enough power to destroy entire islands and Nigh Invulnerability, but Luffy had the kind of power Eneru was least capable of countering. Later on in the show's run, the Sabaody arc started with the Strawhats dominating some lame pirates, then introduces nine pirate crews, some equal to the Strawhats. It ends with the Strawhats completely dominated again by some of the strongest characters introduced in One Piece up until now.
    • It's pretty much subverted with the Marineford arc, with numerous high level Marines and pirates that are just too strong for Luffy. These include the Seven Warlords of the Sea like Doflamingo and Mihawk to the three Admirals and from the Vice Admirals to Sengoku. It's going to take time for the Straw Hats to overcome these opponents.
    • Also subverted by the Four Emperors. The first one we see is none other than Shanks, followed by Whitebeard. Then we hear about what Kaido did to Moria and his old crew. And the first thing we see Big Mom do is eat one of her crewmates for no reason whatsoever and decrimating islands for not giving her sweets.
  • In Bleach, Kurosaki Ichigo goes through a long list of tougher enemies as follows: get the crap beaten out of him by the enemy, somehow power up, fight again and he's now on equal terms, some mid-battle powering up, at which point he can just about stomp the bad guy and it's time for a new more powerful one... the process has now slowed down, but it's still present. This cycle has repeated itself with Kuchiki Byakuya, Grimmjow, and Ulquiorra. The only inversions to this trope where Ichigo did not go through this process or defeat them in one battle are Ichimaru Gin and Aizen Sosuke. This is later justified in that every major battle Ichigo has ever fought has been orchestrated by Aizen, who Gin is The Dragon for.
    • If we only take Ulquiorra though, who was a good villain for two and a half arcs on his own, he subverts this; he appears first and is seen with enough power to be A) Trusted by Aizen, B) Stopped Grimmjow without an argument, and C) Posed enough of a threat for people to disobey him without him being around, which is done multiple times. Subverted again with Yammy's case... if you think he's as strong as his rank says.
  • Monster Rancher is complex: Pixie is the first of the big bad 4, but stronger than Gali and Greywolf—it takes the entire team sans golem to beat Pixie, but only Moochi or Tiger to beat Gali and Greywolf. Then they meet Moo (the Big Bad) on the road quite early, and the encounter plays out like a Hopeless Boss Fight. Although it's played straight in a sense, since Naga is the strongest of the big bad 4, and after that it's Moo in his Dragon Body who is incredibly powerful. But is subverted again, because in the next series they're up against one of his captains, who is obviously much weaker than Moo was.
  • Averted in Rurouni Kenshin. The characters make a point of stating several times that the villain of the third arc, Enishi, while very powerful, is just not on the same level as the villain of the previous arc, Shishio. Enishi manages to make up the difference by striking while everyone's still recovering from the fight with Shishio, sending several of his henchmen to fight the heroes, using a style that seems specifically built to counter Kenshin's own, and fighting an extremely emotionally distraught Kenshin. In short, while Shishio would probably defeat Enishi, Enishi is in a much better position to defeat Kenshin.
    • Plus, some of the enemies are not as big of a threat; Inui Banjin gives Sanosuke a hard time, but once he's able to use Futae no Kiwami the battle ends rather promptly. This is contrasted with Anji, who traded blows with Sano despite the technique supposedly being a one hit kill.
  • D Gray Man would justify this, since the Akuma all have specific Levels... except that, as the heroes get stronger, they start fighting higher-leveled Akuma in larger groups.
  • In Yu Yu Hakusho, every villain is billed as the most powerful, strongest, blah blah blah. This begins with several C-Class Demons early on and ends with the heroes fighting S-Class demons at the end of the series. Somewhat justified in that the Spirit World set up a powerful barrier that prevented powerful demons from entering the living world.
  • Saiyuki inverts this with its seasonal big bads. The first series has Homura, the God of War. Reload has Dr. Nii's disciple Kami-sama, and Gunlock features Hazel, a mere priest from the west. It also plays with the trope by making the villains harder to defeat in other ways - Homura was unquestionably a bad guy, but is followed by Psychopathic Manchild Kami-sama, who just didn't work on the same level mentally. Then there was Hazel, who was in all appearances a good guy, creating a huge ethical backlash to fighting him.
  • The classic example of the technology creep variety would be the Zeon mobile suits in Mobile Suit Gundam. They go from the rather pathetic Zaku which was designed for fighting conventional vehicles rather than other mobile suits, to the fast, heavily armed & armored, though somewhat unwieldy Dom to the powerful & agile Gelgoog, which nearly matches the Gundam's performance, with a few Ace customs and Super Prototypes along the way for flavor. This would be a fairly realistic setup... if the war had lasted longer than a single year. The novelization is somewhat better about this as the war drags on for two years & the Gelgoogs never show up. It also subverts this trope, as the antagonists use a slightly less advanced Mobile Armor to fight the Gundam in the climactic battle due to supply shortages and though the Gundam defeats it, it proves to be enough of a distraction that a Mauve Shirt piloting a lowly Rick Dom is able to finish Amuro off.
  • The entirety of battle in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is a combination of this and a Lensman Arms Race. The Big Bad actually does explain, though, that he intentionally did it that way, the reasoning being that the harder the heroes have worked to get to where they are, the more crushing it'll be when they're finally defeated. That's, uh... not what happens.
  • Digimon series.
    • Digimon uses a series of Evolutionary Levels: Baby, Rookie, Champion, Ultimate, Mega. The team has to advance to the next level to face the next level of enemies. This gets a little ridiculous in later series, where every bad guy seems to be Mega level and some are just that much more powerful then other Megas.
    • The original Digimon Adventure has Devimon, an evil Champion-level Digimon. Then there was Etemon, who was purely comical as opposed to the serious Devimon, but was at the Ultimate level and thus considerably stronger. Then came Myotismon, an Ultimate of great strength who was the first Digimon in the show to evolve to Mega form. Then came the four Dark Masters, who were all Mega level. The last, most powerful enemy they faced, was Apocalymon, an insanely-strong Mega level, who beat the digidestined at first, but was defeated by their Grand Finale All Your Colors Combined attack. Explained by the Dark Masters: they were heading up a mountain, through each of the Dark Masters' turfs one at a time and the Dark Masters rarely interfered in one another's matters. The four got progressively tougher the further up the mountain they got, the most powerful Piedmon reigning from the very top.
    • The V-Tamer manga went a step further and introduced Arkadimon, which was the "Super Ultimate" Digimon. Among other things, it killed Sigma's Piedmon (a Mega level) while still at Rookie level. In one hit. Its Champion level did the same to Seraphimon (a considerably stronger Mega) with about as much effort. Consider that for most Digimon, a single Evolutionary Level is often an insurmountable hurdle.
    • Also, in Digimon Tamers, the first several Digimon to appear are all Rookie or Champion level, and are easily beaten by the Rookie level Digimon used by the protagonists, that quite quickly unlock Champion level. Later, the Devas appear and nearly force them to unlock Ultimate level, after which they wind up in the Digital World and learn of the D-Reaper, which eventually results in the good guys unlocking Biomerge Digivolution. In the end, it all came down to 4 Megas against one Mega. Guess who kicked ass for most of the fight.
    • Digimon Savers averts this, in that the first major "villain" they encounter is of the Mega level. Then, however, it turns out that he's not actually a bad guy, and the main antagonist becomes Gotsumon (a Rookie level digimon), the human-hating minion of the aforementioned bad guy. He ends up manipulating another Mega level digimon into attacking the humans, and then it's revealed that pretty much everything bad and the reason why Digimon distrust humans is due to the actions of Dr. Akihiro Kurata - a human. Later, it appears that Kurata is going to be usurped by Belphemon, Kurata instead fuses with it and remains in control of it until his defeat. Yggdrasil rounds out the series as the penultimate antagonist, but considering his actions are due to Kurata's own misdeeds, Kurata still remains the main villain of the series.
  • Magic Knight Rayearth. The first enemy the Power Trio faces, Alcyone, is a powerful Ice Mage but easily dispatched. Then come Ascot, Caldina, Lafarga and, finally, Zagato himself. While their power levels are all over the place, they have specific skills that make them increasingly dangerous, and it would have been easy for any of the later foes to eliminate the Knights had they been dispatched earlier. In particular, one wonders why, since Zagato knew all about the Magic Knight legend, why he didn't go after the girls himself as soon as they arrived. In the anime, Zagato does show up for a few moments to show the heroes just a tiny portion of his power. Had he actually attacked them, they would not have survived. What Zagato wants to do Other than keeping his beloved Princess alive is never fully explained. He may not intend to kill the Magic Knights, regardless of what that will mean for him. The Ascot arc shows the trope in miniature: the first few "friends" are indeed strong enough to squish the Magic Knights into paste, but they have glaring weaknesses that the girls discover and exploit within minutes. However, his very last Summoned Monsters are titanic foes that can go toe-to-toe with the ancient Rune Gods, and continue to be powerful presences in the second arc whenever the Knights need rescuing. He always had access to them, so why he didn't call these right off the bat is a mystery to everyone.
  • Code Geass. Lelouch faces off with increasingly improving resistance from The Empire, but manages to cope because his allies also get better mechas over time. In the first major battle, he faces inept commander Prince Clovis and a bunch of regular Knightmares with his terrorist allies using mostly outdated Knightmares of their own, and they own the field... And then Suzaku shows up... Algorithm leaps somewhat later when Lelouch tries to do this again against much better leader Princess Cornelia, and his (different group) allies are totally slaughtered. He later however turns the tables when he tries this again, only using the environment to his advantage, supported by the JLF, and with Ace Pilot Kallen in a better mecha. He nearly has Cornelia beat... And then Suzaku shows up... again. Eventually his allies begin to power up faster than The Empire, and he's likely have won the war, if not for some extreme circumstances and misfortunes. Eventually Kallen's able to easily turn Suzaku's mech to scrap, even after it gets an upgrade. By the end of the series however, his terrorist army has gotten so good, that when he's forced to fight them, this time commanding the forces of The Empire, he's no match. Unfortunately the trope is subverted in R2, where Lelouch deals with the immortal V.V. (the target of his vendetta), The Emperor, and Schneizel when everyone thought it was going to be the other way around. Even worse, The Emperor kills V.V. before Lelouch even learns that V.V. was the one who killed his mother.
  • Played straight then subverted in History's Strongest Disciple Kenichi, in the manga at least. The storyline covered in the anime plays it straight, with Kenichi fighting stronger opponents as his skill improves; high school bullies, Ragnarok mooks, the Eight Fists of Ragnarok, and finally their leader Odin. Kenichi's struggle against YOMI, the next antagonist group subverts it. YOMI's leader Sho Kanou, touted as the strongest fighter of them all and inheritor of the styles of YAMI the series' Big Bad organization... is the second YOMI member Kenichi defeats. However Kenichi then gets his ass handed to him against another member of YOMI. Possibly justified since each of the YOMI members and their masters in YAMI believes that he or she is really the strongest; some of the YAMI members believed that Sho was unsuitable to be YOMI leader. That and Kenichi's fighting ability is highly dependent on the circumstances involved; even though he's practically superhuman at this point he's still slightly intimidated by high school bullies.
  • Eyeshield 21 and other such sports manga tend to increase in scope as the story goes on. Athletes face opponents from other cities first and other countries later. Played straight and subverted earlier in the manga, where the Devil Bats' first opponents are a very weak team, followed immediately by the uber-talented and powerful Ojou White Knights, then the moderately challenging but not all that Zokugaku Chameleons. But, naturally, once they get to the fall tournament, the easy games all happen first. It is a knock-out tourney so only the best get far. Subverted again in the Kanto tournament, where the match-ups are decided through a lottery. They do not go against the nine-times-in-a-row-champions Shinryuuji Naga in the finals, or in the semi-finals, but in their very first match. They then face their ultimate rivals, the White Knights in their second match, and fellow darkhorse team, the Hakushuu Dinosaurs in the final. All are very close, very tough matches, and which one was the best is a matter of debate among the fandom.
  • JoJo's Bizarre Adventure both plays this trope straight and averts it. While the enemies fought in each series grow stronger the closer that you get to the end, the fact that each volume stars a different hero means that Big Bads don't necessarily have to be stronger than what came before. For example, while Dio of Part 3 was quite dangerous, he wasn't as immediate a threat to the world as the Pillar Men of Part 2.
    • This is arguable considering what his true master plan was revealed to be in part 6, which is to make a Perfect World for Dio. And although orchestrated by one of his minions and the series 6 Big Bad Enrico Pucci, it was still a large threat either on par or greater than the Pillar Men. Especially since the Perfect World would not only have to remove the Joestar family, which are Dio's biggest threat, but also anyone who would ever pose a threat to Dio, including the Pillar Men and the series 5 Big Bad Diavolo.
    • Given that above point, the only time it's really been subverted (without getting into technicalities) is with Kira from series 4. Although to be fair series 4 is about simply protecting one town over protecting the world. He was merely one serial killer as opposed to a vampire or a mob boss.
      • And even then, while Kira most certainly did not have as much ambition or ressources as any of the other Big Bads, he won the Superpower Lottery so handily that he was just as hard to beat as he should given his place in the series.
  • Saint Seiya: By Law of Chromatic Superiority, the heroes must first battle their peers, the Bronze Saints (and, later, their Evil Counterpart Black Saints) in a local skirmish for the Gold Cloth; then, the Silver Saints, who hunt them down for said Cloth; and finally, the Gold Saints, who never leave the Sanctuary. Then come the Asgardian God Warriors, who can give Golds a run for their money; Marine Shoguns, likewise; and then Hades' Spectres. The last foes they encounter are actual Gods, and the teaser movie for Chapter of Heaven hints that the Bronze Boys are raring to take on the Olympian Gods themselves. Subverted in the manga when Gold Saint Virgo Shaka seeks out and nearly kills Bronze Saint Phoenix Ikki before the actual plot even begins. Their battle, such as it is, is shown as an extended flashback.
  • Played with in Mahou Sensei Negima, where the first major antagonist that Negi faced -Evangeline - is the strongest character in the series, only winning the fight by a combination of luck and the fact that Eva wasn't really taking the fight seriously/more or less let him win. Played with because part of Eva's curse was still in effect, and when he first fights her without it, he can barely last three minutes.
  • This trope is straight out mocked in the second episode of Haruhi Chan. After being 'defeated', Asakura warns Kyon and Yuki that she is "the weakest of the radical four", which will now come after them. And above the radical four, are the top three leaders..!
  • Played straight for most of Fist of the North Star. Shin, Ken's initial rival and the man who engraved the seven scars on his chest, isn't even the strongest of the Nanto Seiken masters, but rather Souther, a character who is introduced a bit later and is shown to be immune to the effects of Ken's martial art at first. Jagi, the first of Ken's adoptive brothers to appear in the story, is a petty thug who never truly mastered Hokuto Shinken, but is still stronger than the average Mook, in contrast to Raoh, the eldest and the last one to appear, who is the Big Bad for most of the first series and ends up killing most of Ken's allies. Then there's Kaioh, the ultimate Big Bad of the second series, who was the only villain that was actually immune to Kenshiro's ultimate technique of Musou Tensei and almost killed him during their first encounter. Subverted in the final chapters of the manga, in which the final villain, Bolge, was just an average wasteland thug no stronger than Jagi.
  • In Busou Renkin, the series begins with the main characters fighting off animal- and plant-type homunculi. Then of course comes along a stronger animal-type homunculus, and then the humanoid homunculi, and then Victor, and then Victor AND the Alchemist Army, and then Victor in his third stage...
    • And where does Papillon fit in all this?
  • Star Blazers / Space Battleship Yamato. Initially, Desslok does not consider the Star Force a serious threat, and orders low-ranking shlubs Ganz and Bane to fight them. After Ganz and Bane's defeat, Desslok takes the threat more seriously and sends his best general, Lysis to fight them. After they defeat Lysis, then Deslok decides to take them on personally.
    • In the second season, first the Star Force fights some weak Comet Empire lackeys while Desslok's hanging out at the Comet Empire, then they fight Desslok who almost defeats them but is tricked to run away, then a tank battalion that almost destroys the Space Marines, then they fight Desslok again except this time he's ENRAGED, then they take on the Comet Empire, then the dreadnought inside the Comet Empire.
    • In the third season, Desslok's buddy-buddy with the Star Force. His generals do not understand this and keep throwing more and more power to capture the Star Force without telling him. He is not amused when he finds out.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion is complex. Angels fought later in the series are generally stronger, but some are weaker or don't fight directly. The 3rd fought may be the most powerful. In response, NERV's forces follow a sort of Parabolic Power Curve, at their strongest from about the time Asuka joins until Shinji surpasses her. This means that some of the midgame angels, like Matariel (the spider, 7th fought) and Sahaquiel (The Colony Drop angel, 8th fought), which might have been quite strong or invincible against a single Eva...weren't. As the series moves on towards the endgame, things start coming apart for NERV and they have to start expending irreplaceable resources to defeat the angels. All this makes it hard to determine the strength of the individual angels: Sahaquiel seems more dangerous than Ramiel (the octahedron angel, the aforementioned 3rd fought) but was more easily defeated, Zeruel (12th fought, the one with the skull and which blasted its way into the Geofront) seems to be the most powerful direct combat angel, but if the Eva pilots had still been capable of facing it as a cohesive team, like when they fought Matariel and Sahaquiel, who knows what would have happened. Angels twelve and up did have increasing effects on the pilots' mental state.
    • But then completely plays it straight in the Finale, since the Final Angel is basically stated to be the absolutely most powerful of all in terms of AT Field, able to basically Won't Work On Me anything short of another Physical God. Fittingly, there were 2 of them in the same room with him...and he basically would have let himself die regardless anyway. Then The Movie ends with....uhhhhhh, the two aforementioned Physical Gods doing....stuff that would make your head explode. And I mean....both the Characters themselves...AND YOU!!! Enjoy your Mind Screw, my friends!
    • It's not that complex. During the first half, most of the angels - save for #5 Ramiel - were more human or animal-like and laughably weak, compared to the second half - starting with #11 Iruel and #12 Leliel - which started taking new forms and started posing a greater threat physically as well as a new threat psychologically, with three of the remaining five angels actually capable of defeating the Evas and/or killing their pilots.
    • Actually, most of them stopped bothering to attack in a direct physical manner. They switched to becoming Personified Aspects of the Cast's psychological problems and actually toned down on most of the raw power. Some of them don't even do any literal physical damage anymore.
      • While #10 Sahaquiel posed greater danger than Ramiel, it was still weaker, as its descent was stopped by a single Eva, and once that happened, it had little offensive or defensive ability left. And #9 Matariel was the weakest angel that was felled by only machine gunfire; it only caused problems because of where the Evas had to fight it. Both Matariel and Sahaquiel could have been killed by a single Eva.
        • Sahaquiel probably couldn't be defeated by a single Eva actually since it would have eventually broken through anyway, unless it accidentally triggered a Berserk Eva-01. Which can basically Curbstomp anything "anyway". Minus the whole potentially ending the world in the process thing that it tends to do also...
  • Actually mostly averted in Fairy Tail. Probably the strongest opponent Natsu has had to face was Jellal, who was actually one of the earlier villains and required a Super Mode to beat that put Natsu into a coma. Laxus and Zero never quite meet that level. Faust sort of does, but that's more due to having a weapon that drains your ability to even fight it rather than being actually powerful.
  • Somewhat averted in The Prince of Tennis. Many of the earlier rivals are good enough to keep up with Seigaku throughout the manga. Fudomine and Yamabuki, who are faced in the District and Prefectural Tournament respectively on, make it all the way to the nationals. Seigaku's arch rival Hyotei is faced in the very first Kanto Tournament Match. However, they prove to be Seigaku's strongest opponents after Rikkai and even get faced again. Later opponents such as Shitenhouji have good players, but are defeated relatively easily compared to the "two loss three win" formula against Hyotei and Rikkaidai.
  • Bakugan plays this straight.
    • S1: Naga, an egomaniac Bakugan whose plot is to absorb the power of the core of the Bakugan homeworld and conquer the universe.
    • S2: King Zenoheld and the Vexos. Zenoheld rules an entire planet and finally goes Ax Crazy and tries to destroy the universe, creating a Bakugan actually capable of doing so. Despite being strong enough to beat Naga, they've got to get a few upgrades to be able to beat them.
    • S3: Emperor Barodius and the Gundalians. Are already on the winning side of a war with a peaceful planet and decides to invade Earth for kicks. Once again, the power that was able to defeat Zenoheld isn't enough to beat his forces and more upgrades are needed.
    • S4: Mag Mel has yet to show his actual power, but considering he's Sealed Evil in a Can that was imprisoned for actually committing genocide, it's a safe bet.
      • Now that he has, it's been confirmed, with still more upgrades needed to face his strongest forces although technically he could simply be considered the same Big Bad but with new tricks, as he's actually what Barodius became after his defeat...
  • Played a bit with in Slayers. The first major enemy Lina fights is the Nigh Invulnerable Rezo the Red Priest, who happens to have a fragment of the world's Demon God sealed inside of him. Said Demon God is the most powerful of all evil creatures in the world, so, that's it right? Nothing can challenge Lina? Wrong. Oh, so wrong. The next major enemy Lina fights (in the anime) is a creature that's IMMUNE to magic attacks and has to be taken down in a rather unusual way. The next season has the Demon God's underlings show up and be enemies. Surely they can't be as powerful, right? Wrong. Even though they are less powerful than the Demon God at full power, the underlings are stronger than the fragment that Lina fought against in the first season. In the novels, the Big Bad of season 2 manages to freaking TANK the incomplete Giga Slave and managed to fight The Lord of Nightmares to a draw, though that was justified in that the Lord of Nightmares was in Lina's body and did not have access to her full power. Season 3 had a combined Demon God and God fusion from another world that needed a specific kind of spell to take him out. Season 4 had the same immune to magic enemy from season 1, though this one had no human controlling him, thus was actually stronger. Season 5 brought back the Demon God fragment from season 1, but this one had more control over the human host and was able to use more of his power. If said Demon God from Season 1 had been at full power, that is, completely consumed the human host, Lina would not be able to kill him.
  • Holyland: The first enemies Yuu fights are usually generic punks who know a bit of streetfighting. He starts coming up against more experienced fighters with genuine training in various disciplines. Eventually, he has to face pros in combat-tested styles like Muay Thai, kickboxing and Mixed Martial Arts.

Comic Books

  • Batman: Year One reintroduces The Detective as being prinicipally concerned with cleaning up Gotham City's Mobster problem; its nominal sequels such as The Man Who Laughs, The Long Halloween and Batman: Dark Victory concern the gradual emergence and rise of the supervillain threat, and by the end of Halloween and Victory nearly all the principal mobsters are either incarcerated or dead, and the supervillains have taken over. Afterwards though this trope is zig-zagged and subverted since, while Batman does deal with global, even genocidal villains as his career moves on, and as part of the Justice League takes on intergalactic menaces and otherworldly threats, those same supervillains still pose as much or even more trouble for him as they ever have, though under Grant Morrison there was / is a tendency to make the city-based threats part of larger international conspiracies, to the point where prior to the lastest Cosmic Retcon Batman had decided to start his own multinational crimefighting franchise to tackle crime everywhere.
  • A subtle example occurs in Spider-Girl with the villains Earthshaker, Mr. Abnormal, and Killerwatt. All three of them were defeated by Spider-Girl early in the first series, and don't reappear for several years real-time. When they finally reappear, they've been drafted to serve in a government super-team, but do a pretty poor job of it. While they were credible threats to Spider-Girl early in her career, their ineffectiveness is now lampshaded by everyone from Carnage to Agent Maria Hill of SHIELD to Spider-Girl herself.
  • Warren Ellis' run on The Authority consisted to three four-issue storylines. In the first, they fight a supervillain. In the second, they fight an entire alternative Earth. And in the third they fight what could be described as God. When Mark Millar then took over the writing, he went back to various kinds of supervillains again.
  • Averted in Les Légendaires; the first pages of book 1 reveal that the protagonists have already defeated their Arch Enemy Darkhell before the story even begins for the reader. He comes back of course... two volumes later, and even then he remained the biggest treath they had to face for seven books, to the point the Bigger Bad had to be a God of Evil in order to actually overshadow him.

Fan Works


  • Subtly toyed with in Point Blank—the hero keeps killing his way up the chain of command without truly getting anywhere.
  • James Bond movies, however, frequently have the main villain's henchman reappear after the main villain has died and his plot has been foiled. Bond will then dispatch them, often by forcing a backfire of their trademark gimmick.
  • Kung Fu Hustle has a rather clearly evident Algorithm, starting with basic Axe Gang members that are countered by the Pig Sty Alley's three martial artists, who are then countered by the Axe Gang's hired Musical Assassins, who are then countered by the Landlord and Landlady, who are in turn countered by the Made of Iron and superhumanly-fast Beast, who is in turn countered by the Heel Face Turn-ed Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist Villain Protagonist. In a slightly jarring subversion, the Beast attempted to use a pile of basic Axe Gang members to soften up the hero before properly fighting him.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean began with the enemies being a crew of cursed undead pirates. The second movie had them facing against the mythological Davy Jones. The third was a battle royal against Davy Jones and the entire East India Company navy, with the God of the Ocean thrown in for good measure. Good thing they had the Pirate council and Elizabeth Took a Level in Badass.
  • The Lord of the Rings breaks from the trope—the Big Bad sends out his uber-henchmen first to get the Ring from Frodo. Resulting in a rather awkward situation when they content themselves with stabbing him with a poisonous dagger and retreat instead of slaughtering everybody, as they're fully capable of doing, demonstrating that the algorithm exists for a good reason. The trope is broken again after the war is over: the hobbits return home and are forced to deal with a bunch of thugs and an effectively powerless Saruman.
    • Be fair, now. The Nazgûl stabbed Frodo, but were chased away by Aragorn (their Achilles' Heel is their fear of fire, a common motif that Tolkien went with). And when Frodo is being taken to Rivendell, the Wraiths have regrouped, with all of them being washed away by the river. When they appear again in The Two Towers and The Return Of The King, they've gotten even more powerful with the felbeasts. Even though they failed to reclaim The One Ring, they were not the Quirky Miniboss Squad, by any means.
  • The Karate Kid had an annoying algorithm of villains, when one thinks about it. In the first movie Daniel-San was unable to beat his nemesis, but after receiving training he beat him. This was useless against his new nemesis in the second movie, but after receiving new training he beat him. The third film repeated the pattern. That means that the third nemesis was much better at karate than the Badass nemesis of the second movie...
  • Each of the Terminator sequels introduced a more advanced Terminator model as the antagonist. There are plot reasons for this.
  • In the first Alien film, just one alien manages to kill off all but one crew member of the Nostromo, Ripley. In Aliens, she has to face an entire colony of them, including their Queen. Then averted in Alien3, which like the first in the series has only a single alien menacing our protagonists, in addition to a Queen embryo maturing in Ripley's thorax. And finally played half-straight in Alien: Resurrection when an entire colony of them is being faced again, but this one consists of no more than 12 individuals in addition to their Queen, as well as some sort of alien-human hybrid in the end. However, between their low numbers and how badass Ripley has become, a lot if not most of the tension was unfortunately lost.
  • Subverted in Three Hundred. After his first wave of Mooks fails, God-King Xerxes sends his best troops, the Immortals, to kill the Spartans. It fails because, as the narrator claims, the Spartans were not yet weakened by fatigue.
  • Alluded to in The Dark Knight Saga where the first time we see Batman he handily arrests Scarecrow.
  • Stormtroopers board the Tantive IV in the beginning of A New Hope and several of them promptly get gunned down. Then, Darth Vader enters and lets everyone know who is in charge. It's not until the sequel that we are introduced to Emperor Palpatine, leader of the Galactic Empire.
  • Used briefly in the first Gamera series. In Gamera vs. Gyaos, Gamera takes the entire film to kill Gyaos. Then, for Gamera vs. Guiron, Guiron is introduced as he's effortlessly killing a Space Gyaos. This wasn't entirely intentional on the filmmaker's part, as they'd originally intended for Space Gyaos' role to be filled by a completely different, new kaiju—they only reused the Gyaos costume because they couldn't make the new monster in time.


  • Oddly subverted in the Lone Wolf gamebooks, then played straight. Lone Wolf actually manages to kill two of the Darklords in the first five books; each was the leader of the Darklords at the time of their deaths. Later, Lone Wolf goes on to fight more powerful opponents. Book 12 justifies the subversion by stating that the Darklords are severely weakened by clean air; they could only fight at full strength in utterly corrupted environments. After the Darklords are defeated, the trope is played straight, as Lone Wolf's victory managed to piss off Naar, the god that created the Darklords in the first place.


  • Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series is blatant aversion of this trope.
  • A literary example comes from the Lensman series of novels, which worked up from interplanetary gangsters to an evil older than the formation of the solar system whose goal was domination of all intelligent life in the universe. These books justified the algorithm by revealing in each book that the Big Bad of this book was The Man Behind the Man of last book's Big Bad. Then again, the nesting that would be present in the beginning is somewhat mind-boggling.[3]
  • Harry Potter. Voldemort starts off as a powerless relic of his former glory in the first book and slowly works his way back up to Big Bad over the course of the series. Thus, the threat Harry faces grows without the villain changing. Voldemort also tries to defy this trope at Harry's birth: he set out himself to destroy him. Scar ha ha.
  • Justified in the Honor Harrington series. The People's Navy starts out the war with Manticore commanded by a bunch of inept bureaucrats and politically-appointed admirals, but the Committee of Public Safety's coup kicks most of the garbage out of the system and allows the best Havenite admirals to rise to the a purge that also happens to remove their most experienced admirals before they ever come into play. They also implement a system that prevents their best admirals from showing any strategic initiative, including commissars with the authority to override admirals and executions for anyone who fails "pour encourager les autres".[4]
  • Advertising copy for The Ghost King, R.A. Salvatore's 2009 Drizzt novel: "When the Spellplague ravages Faerun, Catti-brie falls into a deathlike trance, taking Regis with her. Drizzt, with the most unlikely ally of all at his side, seeks the help of Cadderly -- the hero of the recently reissued series The Cleric Quintet. But even as his beloved's life hangs by a thread, Drizzt finds himself facing his most powerful and elusive foe, the twisted Crenshinibon, the demonic Crystal Shard he believed had been destroyed years ago. And the dragon he thought was destroyed along with it. And the mind flayer. And the seven liches that created the Crystal Shard in the first place. All in one godlike entity that calls itself the Ghost King." To calibrate the algorithm, it is the last book in R.A. Salvatore's eighth Forgotten Realms series. But then, Drizzt is a D&D hero, with complete stats - and quite strong enough to face a squid thingy and a dragon and a group of liches.
  • Played straight in the Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher, but averted in The Dresden Files series. After fighting an evil wizard with more ambition and enjoyment for kicking puppies than actual power or brains in the first book, Harry Dresden fights werewolves, ghosts, vampires and even the fricking faerie queens by the fourth book... and back down to vampires in the sixth. While there's plenty of fighting and Harry and the other protagonists are powerful in their own ways, the drama generally comes from scheming and Harry's personal stake in the matter. The faeries in Proven Guilty would have been no problem for Harry even back in book one, but the problem was that now he had to handle the person who summoned them as well.
    • In the Codex Alera, the Vord basically have this as a superpower, which when coupled with the raw intellect of their Queens is just as scary as it sounds. Even though the Vord are defeated in the early books, this just taught the Queen new tricks to use to modify future generations of her children, so that when they come back they're far more formidable. The only way to stop the Vord for good without this happening seems to be to kill the Queen.
  • Generally averted in JRR Tolkien's works- the supernatural powers of evil tend to get weaker, not stronger, as the timeline advances. The supernatural powers of good also get weaker, however (or at least less accessible) in accord with the general transition of Middle-earh from a mythological world to a more realistic one. If you start with The Hobbit and then go to The Lord of the Rings, however, it's played straight, going from the Big Bad being a dragon (dangerous on his own to be sure, but lacking minions or the ambition to range far from home without proper incentive) to an Evil Overlord with world-conquering ambition.
    • Although at the very end of The Lord of the Rings, the heroes have to face one last battle: a handful of bandits in the Shire. After the climax and death of Sauron, this seems comparatively petty.
  • In Septimus Heap, the threats the protagonists are up to against increse with progressing story, from the inefficient DomDaniel of Magyk over Queen Etheldredda to Tertius Fume and the Darke Domaine in Darke.
  • A Certain Magical Index plays with this. Accelerator, one of the most powerful characters in the series, is fought in the third book. The next few villains are all substantially weaker (barring Archangel Gabriel). The members of God's Right Seat are a straight example, with Acqua of the Back being a far greater threat than Vento of the Front or Terra of the Left, and Fiamma of the Right being even more dangerous. The second series introduces Othinus, a Physical God who eventually gains universe-scale reality warping power. However, the villains after Othinus are again much less powerful.

Live Action TV

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer generally had a far more dangerous Big Bad each season than the last. Good thing Adam didn't show up in season 1. By the end Buffy faces the personified root of all evil. The entire series is a coming of age story and the threats get bigger as they increase in metaphoric resonance with being grown-up.
    • Also subverted in Season 6. In contrast to demon-God Glory, The Trio does little to stir the Scooby Gang until the latter half of the season. Still, Warren does succeed in killing Tara, even if by accident, which serves as the catalyst to awaken Dark Willow, who comes dangerously close to destroying the entirety of Earth.
  • Power Rangers usually uses this, with the villains choosing to create/summon progressively stronger monsters as the season goes on and the Rangers grow stronger. Justified somewhat in Jungle Fury where the Big Bad is a recently released sealed evil who has lost much of his power, and thus grows stronger throughout the season much as the heroes do. Also justified in RPM (which is superb at justifying, or at least lampshading, standard Power Rangers tropes) with the assertion that the evil Venjix computer virus is developing increasingly advanced technology over time. The early Power Rangers monsters relied on their quirks as opposed to raw power and strength. That explains why they were at the front.
    • In the first few seasons before they decided on their Discard and Draw style, the main Big Bads were like this. They fight Rita for a seasons, seeing her as the worst evil in the Galaxy, then season 2 comes in, and Zordon basically says "Forget her, this guy's worse."
  • Stargate Verse series.
    • Stargate SG-1 started with Apophis. When they finally got rid of him, even stronger Goa'uld showed up. But that's okay, the team got good at dispatching Goa'uld. So Anubis shows up, with the full knowledge of the godlike beings who had created the stargates. But they took care of him—though it was a close one. For almost a whole month there is peace. Then the godlike Ori turn up.[5]
    • The Stargate Atlantis team woke up the Wraith and turned on the Asurans' hostility switch. Nice Job Breaking It, Hero indeed. At first glance it might even seem like the Stargate Program was responsible for Earth being attacked by the Goa'uld—Earth being safely ignored by them until the SGC used the Stargate and wound up killing Ra. However, if the stargate had never been dug up in the first place, then humanity would never have (re)discovered the Goa'uld until humans discovered FTL travel on their own probably hundreds of years from now... and the Goa'uld would probably have been out there waiting for them. So in the case of the overall series' problem itself, the SGC didn't create the villain, just drew their attention prematurely. The last episode of Atlantis was essentially the concept of when the villains skip a few levels past where the heroes are expecting.
  • The first season finale of Heroes has Molly tell us at point-blank range that there is another, much bigger bad than Sylar, who hasn't shown up yet. It turns out that the one Molly's scared of isn't even the Big Bad of Season 2; just the disciple of someone nastier... Adam Monroe, arguably the primary founder of The Company. However, it should be noted that in contrast to Sylar (a power-stealer with a dozen different ways to murder you), Adam is simply an extremely cunning and manipulative man who's very good at getting people to do what he wants. Oh, and who's also got a Healing Factor that makes him nigh-immortal.
      • Also, the algorithm looks to be subverted as of the second season finale: Big Bad Adam becomes Sealed Evil in a Can again, and his successor appears to be none other than Sylar.
    • Volume 3 had Arthur Petrelli, a power-draining Evil Overlord who (after stealing all of Peter's abilities) was essentially a walking Physical God.
    • Pretty much out the window with Volume 4, where the Big Bad is a non-powered government agent who leads SWAT teams with dart guns. Then again, Sylar's helping them...
    • Volume 5 has Samuel Sullivan, the superhuman Antichrist, whose Earthbending ability is powered by the number of followers he has and who, with enough followers, is strong enough to crack the Earth in half.
    • Generally speaking, apart from volume 2 and 5, it hasn't mattered who the Big Bad is, given Sylar's tendency to hijack the plot. This was rumoured to supposed to happen in volume 2 as well, but the season was left unfinished due to the 2007 writer's strike.
  • Twenty Four: The first season is about Drazen's personal vendetta against Jack and Palmer. The second is about a threatened nuclear attack on Los Angeles. This escalates to a successful nuclear attack at the beginning of Season 6. The trope is used within individual seasons as well. In season 1, the main antagonists of the first few hours are a pair of college kids, followed by a local gangster, and building all the way up to a very well-funded international terrorist group, plotting for the release of an ex-dictator with the help of a group of heavily-armed mercenaries. And it happens from season to season, with the Big Bad of season four actually working for the Big Bad of season five, with that Big Bad working for a minor villain in season six... and as it turns out, most of those villains were actually working for the Big Bad of season seven.
  • Partially seen, partially reversed on Charmed, which actually followed a Bell Curve of Evil. At first, the villains grew progressively more powerful, from warlocks, to demons, to the Source of All Evil himself. Once the Source of All Evil was blown to bits three times over halfway through the show's run things went a bit downhill. Later Big Bads included a Well-Intentioned Extremist angel, the Source's slightly less powerful rival, and finally the show's last Big Bad were basically the heroine's Evil Counterparts, who were roughly at the same power level they were.
  • Reversed on |Mission Impossible, largely as a result of plot decay. While in the first few seasons the IMF went up against international terrorists, tyrannical dictators, and the Red Menace, later seasons mostly found them up against the Mob.
  • In the first season of Lost, the villains are mainly unseen: the monster in the pilot, then Ethan, about whom not much is known. The main antagonist is arguably "the unknown". The second and third seasons are more about the Others. The fourth season introduced the freighties, who made the Others look more like the "good guys" they've always claimed to be. The fifth season introduced the series' true Big Bad, the immortal, pure evil Man in Black, aka The Monster. His only hindrance was that he couldn't kill the heroes directly, but he racked up a huge body count during the final season and made even master manipulator Ben look weak and powerless.
  • The new series of Doctor Who does this with their season finales. In the first season, a future Earth is invaded by Daleks. In the second, the contemporary Earth is invaded by Daleks and Cyberman. In the third season the Master's invasion of the contemporary Earth actually succeeds and he turns it into a dystopian wasteland. Then in season four Davros threatens the disintegration of all universes in all of reality. Since the writers were already forced to resort to Deus Ex Machina in the very first season, it makes you wonder about the wisdom of this upping of the threat. The first season led by Steven Moffat upped the threat again, with all the universes being threatened of having never existed in the first place , by a still unrevealed Big Bad.
  • Farscape had an odd way of upping the ante each season while making old villains "join the team". First season had Captain Bialar Crais pursuing the protagonists with his one warship. At the end of the first season, Crais is usurped by Scorpius, a rival commander of the Peacekeeper force, and Crais becomes an increasingly trustworthy ally over the next two seasons. By the start of the fourth season, Scorpius is on the outs due to being spectacularly humiliated by the heroes and the machinations of the more politically powerful Commandant Grayza, so he starts to hitch rides and help out the heroes, although he remains much more evil than Crais. The fourth season then does a switch half-way through and makes the evil reptilian Scarrans the main bad guys, supplanting the Peacekeepers for top evil.
  • Supernatural:
    • Seasons 1-5 initially had the Yellow-Eyed demon as the Big Bad, who gets replaced by the more powerful Lilith, and then by the Devil himself. Lampshaded, along with Villain Pedigree, near the end of season five when Sam asks Dean if he remembers when they just fought things like wendigos.
    • Later, this trope is subverted, since Lucifer was thrown back into Hell, and none of the season 6 big bads are more powerful than him. In season 7, the new main villains are the Leviathans, who are the first that Sam and Dean can actually beat in a straight fight.
  • The Kamen Rider series is no stranger to this trope. In Kamen Rider Kuuga the villainous Gurongi are a warrior race with a strong class system. It is only honorable that a fight must start with the weakest and after they're finished the next strongest group takes their turn.
    • Kamen Rider Double also pulls this off, but in twist. The Sonozakis don't take on Double one by one, but instead, someone else with ties to the family. One of those ties being in a relationship with Saeko, one of the family members.
    • In Kamen Rider Fourze, the first half of the series revolves around the baddies trying to find potential candidates into becoming one of their own (labelled as a "Horoscope"). One of the main villains gets the power to identify who can evolve from a normal Zodiarts into a Horoscope faster, and so, normal Zodiarts are gone, replaced by Horoscopes as MOTW.

Tabletop Games

  • Every class and level based Tabletop Game ever, with Dungeons & Dragons being the Trope Maker. For that matter, any Tabletop Game that has experience points and character advancement ever. As the PCs get more powerful, they have to battle more and more powerful enemies. The difference is whether it's plain rubber band difficulty, or sandbox with variety of challenges and expectation that Player Characters won't be foolish enough to bite obviously more than they can chew (or at least the new PCs won't, after it happened once).
    • Note that although this varies from game to game, the standard Dungeons and Dragons setting doesn't really have a Big Bad per se. Instead the characters are assumed to be adventurers going on adventure after adventure with no real connection between them, and it makes sense they choose adventures that match their abilities. Of course being a Tabletop RPG each group is free to play this trope straight, subvert it, avert it, or whatever they choose.
  • The Necrons in Warhammer 40,000 do this in reaction to strong attacks. If the Scouting parties the Necrons send first, they send another more powerful one, than another and another till all resistance is dead. Of course, since the Nercons are a race of undead machines, and they are the most advanced in the galaxy, they have yet to meet resistance that would warrant awaking their more powerful weapons of war.

Video Games

  • Final Fantasy series.
    • Final Fantasy II uses this trope. If you go directly from town A to town B, you'll have the right level of enemies to face. Unfortunately, they forgot to tell you how to get there without wandering, and lined both sides of the path with high-level enemies, leading to slight missteps to be fatal.
    • Somewhat averted in Final Fantasy VIII where enemies are scaled to match the main character's levels. Bosses are at fixed levels which can lead to random encounters being at higher levels. However, there are some powerful enemies that can be found early on.
      • Including Satan in a frickin' lamp!
    • Final Fantasy X has a somewhat inverted example of this. After reaching the Calm Lands, if one wanted to go backwards and attempt to fight some easier monsters, they're only able to go to the Thunder Plains. Attempt to go any further than this, and you'll find some people who are very annoyed about your previous actions in the game, and sic a horrifically powerful enemy on you, that will devastate you at that stage of the game. It's impossible to have anything even close to a chance of beating it until the end of the game.
      • If said enemy is one of the Dark Aeons, then it's only in the European and "International" (Japanese re-release) versions of the game, not the US release.
    • Final Fantasy XII has a few major exceptions to the trope. Many of the early stages have extremely powerful enemies wandering around that eclipse the normal small fry. A normally leveled party at this point has absolutely no chance against them.[6]
    • Invoked in Final Fantasy XIII. Barthandalus and the other Sanctum fal'Cie want the heroes to get strong enough to kill Orphan and destroy Cocoon, so they carefully controlled what Sanctum military forces went up against them, making sure the protagonists never fought anything that would outright destroy them, instead giving them just enough of a threat to strengthen them.
  • Played straight in Baldur's Gate. Your character is targeted by assassins. It starts with some mooks who pose no threat to even a 1st level character, then a moderately powerful spellcaster [7] And so on, until you finally meet the godlike Big Bad himself and easily dispatch him with all the loot and experience you've taken from his minions. The reward for killing you grows over time, attracting higher-level assassins. Also averted: the games allow you to wander wherever you want, and some of the starting areas are directly adjacent to areas with creatures that can kill low-level characters in one shot. It's also averted in the very beginning. The Big Bad hunts you down personally and your foster father pulls a You Shall Not Pass Heroic Sacrifice to give you the chance to escape.
  • Averted in the MMORPG City of Heroes, Paragon City is divided in many different zones, each of which has its own difficulty level. But except for a few limited-access areas, characters can go (and possibly die) anywhere they want in the city.
    • Most MMORPGs are structured like this; the only thing stopping a low-level character from reaching high-level areas are the powerful monsters. The sorting algorithm is there, just pointed out as how you should do things, not enforced. Typically, the very high-level areas are an inordinately long walk from the low-level areas, or behind a locked door for which the key is easily acquired on the high-level side, in order to at least suggest the intended progression. However, not always: the Forsaken starting area in World of Warcraft contains a mid-level dungeon in one corner, and is directly adjacent to one of the max-level areas, with some helpful NPCs hanging around to tell new players not to go past; and the Blood Elf and Night Elf starting regions aren't much better.
  • The PC game Vivisector: Beast Inside has this in abundance: the animalistic enemies are faced based on their level of feralness and anthropomorphism. The Human enemies also get stronger as the game goes on. In a subversion, though, the final leg of the game contains "unfinished" versions of the animal enemies that are pathetically weak and easy to take out..
  • Strangely included in Final Liberation: even if the game allows the player to get stronger units and a better army as he wins battles, the opposing forces will always have the same overall level as the player's army.
  • The otherwise-excellent The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion shows us why this trope is useful because it lacks it and by doing so is less enjoyable. Monsters power is scaled to yours: you never have to run in terror from an overwhelming threat or carefully plan the takedown of a challenging monsters. All monsters are similar at all times. There is little sense of accomplishment in levelling up and one can complete the game's main quest while remaining at level 1. Worse, some patterns of "leveling up" make you weaker: you must pick the right skills to advance to stay still. In the end, the difficulty slider lets you change your level more than leveling up. The benefit of this system is that as a Wide Open Sandbox the player can go anywhere and do anything without fear of getting smooshed.
  • Present in Nethack: The game generates enemies of level equal to the average of your level and the current dungeon depth. This avoids Oblivion's "every level is just as tough as you are" while still providing the same progression.
  • While present in most (if not all) Roguelikes, it's also slightly averted in some, such as Dungeon Crawl where there's a chance some of the most powerful enemies in the game will spawn on the first couple of levels of the dungeon, not to mention Sigfried who kills more PCs than any other named enemy in the game; or ADOM which can spawn horrifyingly out-of-depth monsters (especially in the Dwarven Halls early in the main dungeon, where the PC can encounter Balors, Ancient dragons, etc.)
  • Quest for Glory—not so much within episodes but present in the larger arc. For instance, if you attempt to venture into the forest when you first begin Quest For Glory 1, you will almost certainly not escape alive without prior knowledge of its layout. As you acquire skills, equipment, items, and experience, you are soon able to survive the forest during the day—but you still had better stay the hell out of there at night. Even as a top-level player, a nighttime venture in the forest is nigh-suicidal, thereby really giving it a sense of menace. However, as you progress from game to game, enemies as a whole become globally stronger so as to keep up the challenge. A Quest For Glory 1 character imported into Quest For Glory 4, for instance, would probably be killed from the suspense alone.[8]
  • Super Smash Bros Brawl. The story mode begins against the robotic Ancient Minister, then onto the Nintendo villains, led by Ganondorf and Bowser, then the series' perennial antagonist Master Hand and finally Tabuu, ruler of Subspace.
  • Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance Early in the game, your group is not seen as a big threat. You start in independent countries that the bad guys have less control in. After you make it to enemy territory, a knight questions why Big Bad Ashnard is spreading his force so thin near the end of the game. Ashnard's response is that he's fascinated by the strength of the group and it's implied he wants to personally fight the strongest force possible. Also, he's just plain vanilla crazy.
    • In the endgame of the sequel, Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, You fight a politician who was blessed by a goddess. Then you fight the Black Knight, who has also been blessed. Next, you fight an army of dragons led by their king, Dheginsea, who in addition to being blessed is also an ancient being who helped defeat the goddess of chaos. Next comes another ancient being who is also blessed by the goddess. Finally, you reach the damn goddess who blessed the bastards from before.
  • Drakengard follows this formula for The Evil Army that Caim is fighting across the vast breadth of the land. By the end of the game, he's fighting the gods themselves, and then the Mother of the Gods, but you don't know that at the time. It is important to note that according to series canon he never actually fought the gods, as they went with the one ending of the five that was bittersweet and not a downer.
  • Partially inverted in Wild ARMs 4. The game seems to follow this trope until you face an ancient demon with total control of space whose lover you just killed. When the enraged demon goes after you, you're only able to kill her because she expends too much energy creating and supporting Another Dimension designed to kill your party and she goes after you again despite her wounds to ensure she takes you out while collapsing the dimension. Her death causes Lambda's strategist to propose a plan to have the remaining Brionac Lieutenants attack the heroes all at once, which gets rejected because The Omniscient Council of Vagueness had other ideas. From that point on, it seems like you fight the Quirky Miniboss Squad in descending levels of power, culminating in a battle against a scientist who just stands there while you wail on him. This is of course exactly what The Omniscient Council of Vagueness had in mind all along, as they wanted to cull Brionac's numbers so that the surviving members would be easier to keep under their control.
  • Subverted in Painkiller. While the first boss is a skyscraper-sized undead giant that requires massive amounts of punishment to bring down, the following bosses get successively smaller. Difficulty, however, is still scaled normally until the last boss; the 4th boss is only about King Kong sized, but is the hardest to beat, while the final boss is bigger but turns out to be a pathetically easy Puzzle Boss who can be killed in seconds.
  • Sam and Max Episodes: each episode's villain was secretly The Man Behind the Man of the previous episode's villain, and would increase in important from local criminals all the way up to President Abraham Lincoln, the Internet itself, and finally the Big Bad himself. Mildly subverted in the end, as the Big Bad was revealed to have been, all along, an annoying recurring secondary character that had appeared throughout the season. Though the first episode villain was acting alone.
  • Lampshaded in Perfect Cherry Blossom in the Reimu's Extra Stage, which consists of a midboss fight against Chen, the boss of the second stage. When you meet Ran, her master and boss of the stage, Reimu notes that she has already fought Chen but didn't think it was anything special because she was a Stage 2 boss. Also subverted in Mountain of Faith, where the first midboss you encounter is supposedly a god, yet goes down in less than two minutes. Even less if Marisa B's power level is between 3.00 and 3.95
  • The final boss fight in The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess:Ganondorf goes from gargantuan teleporting boar, to a demon head made of pure energy to a man on horseback who can summon ghost horsemen at will, to a final fight between you and him on foot with swords. But the overall difficulty ramps up: in each successive fight you lose abilities -- the ability to turn into a wolf and use Midna's magic, then Zelda's magic, and eventually it's down to you and your sword. And then your fishing rod.
  • Most Might and Magic games starting with #3 follow the trope. You start the game in the easiest town and the more you move away from this town the harder the game becomes. Might and Magic III had a very tough dungeon, the aptly-named Maze From Hell not too far from the start point but it was locked and could only be entered much later in the game. The trope is completely subverted in Might and Magic VI though. In this game, the starting area has 3 dungeons: Goblin Watch, the starter dungeon; the Abandoned Temple, a slightly harder and longer dungeon meant to be completed next; and Gharik's Forge, one of the most difficult areas in the entire game (possibly the series) and meant for the second half of the game. The Forge is unlocked and the only way to tell it's best left for later is to enter it and watch the entire party get slaughtered within seconds.
  • Shadow Hearts: Covenant takes this to an extreme. Every time the heroes defeat the apparent Big Bad threatening to destroy the world, a new one appears to, yes, threaten to destroy the world. Somehow it gets softer each time; starting with the threat of demonic global annihilation, and ending with the threat of having the war-torn recent history rewritten into a more peaceful one by the unusually benevolent final Big Bad.
  • The peak bosses in SSX 3 follow this pattern; The boss of Peak One is arrogant upstart Mac Frasier, followed by the gargantuan, destructive human wrecking ball Nate Logan on Peak Two, and finally Psymon Stark, an unstable musclehead who might be violating his parole by competing, on Peak Three. Note that if you're playing as any of these guys, the peak boss is changed to 11-year old Griff Simmons on Peak One, riot grrrrrrrl Zoe Payne on Peak Two, and megalomaniac egotist Elise Riggs on Peak Three.
  • Okami: Orochi's flunkies, the Spider Queen and Crimson Helm, pose very little trouble, and the Orochi himself is severely weakened after awakening from a 100-year imprisonment. The other major villains are already active presences in the world, but they are likewise diminished and can't regain their power, or even cause harm beyond their immediate area of influence, until they absorb the malevolent Life Energy of their slain brethren... culminating with Yami, Lord of Eternal Darkness, who takes all their evil power unto itself.
  • Lampshaded in the end of the X-COM: Apocalypse Let's Play: As a bonus, after the game's done, there's a scene with what would've happened had the aliens sent their biggest and baddest ships through first. It's not pretty.
  • Not just played straight, but formalized in No More Heroes, in which you fight your way up the ranks of the official top ten assassins.
  • In Pokémon the strength of the trainers and the wild Pokémon are directly proportional to how long it is until you get there. There are some aversions: Both the Viridian and Petalburg Gyms have leaders much stronger than you likely will be when you first get there, but you can't actually battle until you're at the appropriate point in the game (with the Petalburg Gym it's because the leader knows he would just kick your ass entirely otherwise). While the Kanto trainers in GSC/HGSS play this straight in that they're all leveled to be near those of someone who beat the Elite Four (which is handwaved by someone stating Kanto has started attracting a bunch of really strong trainers), the wild Pokémon avert it in that they are the same levels as they were in the first generation of games. Interestingly, the trainers still have Pokémon typical of trainers in those locations in the first game, which means they must have held off on evolving them for dozens of levels.
  • Subverted in Tsukihime and its sequels. The power and abilities jump all over the place. Nero Chaos is easily the strongest adversary, much tougher than Roa or any of his opponents so far have been. Satsuki presumably comes after this at some point and doesn't amount to much yet. Then we have Kagetsu Tohya with Nanaya, someone Shiki can't beat, then Kishima Kouma who mainly has the advantage of almost literally being Made of Iron. Not much good against Shiki's eyes, though. Wallachia really only seems to be a problem because even Shiki's eyes can't kill him normally. In direct combat he appears to be rather weak.
  • Double subverted in Devil Survivor. In most routes you have to defeat the remaining three heavenly kings (events in the story have already removed the 4th). Atsuro notes that it is not the normal order to go after the strongest first (see quotes page). When you go to tackle the second, it turns out the third is with him as well (wisely deciding to fight the people who defeated the strongest of the four at the same time) and the map is full of Demonic Spiders.
  • Inverted in the Japanese version of Wolf Fang, where picking the harder routes will give you an easier final stage, which reflects how much of the enemy forces remain. The final bosses are still very hard.
  • Prototype: the weapons and gear the Blackwatch are deploying to Manhattan become more and more sophisticated as the infection worsens and they begin to understand and counter both Mercer and the progressing infection's capabilities. Similarly, the infected armies begin to grow in effectiveness as they develop and evolve.
  • Fallout series.
    • Largely averted in Fallout. The game doesn't stop you from wandering anywhere you like right from the beginning, meaning that you could end up encountering enemies that are far too powerful for you to handle. Once the XP and the ammo start rolling in, however, you can pretty much tear the entire world up at your leisure.
    • Fallout 2. Benefits from the trope. The enemy progression is: giant ants and scorpions at first then rats and geckos. The Den will probably see your first human vs. human battle with nearly everyone in leather armor, pistols or SMGs. Vault City will have metal armors and assault rifles. Redding is fairly light but piss off the Salvatores in New Reno and your ass will get lasered—the Sierra Army Depot nearby has various battle robots. If you are evil, Broken Hills will see your first human vs. supermutant battle. NCR has policemen armed with gauss rifles. In gameplay terms, that means ouch. Both the raider hideout and Vault 15 is full of raiders in leather armor and boasting pistols & hunting rifles but three of them has combat armor and assault rifles. Mariposa is a deathtrap full of super mutants armed with laser rifles, flamethrowers, miniguns, you name it. San Francisco is light but Navarro and the Oil Rig are both utterly deadly with every single combatant clad in power armor and boasting energy weapons. Oh, and the Big Bad has 999 HP, a really powerful plasma cannon, a big-ass knife and about a dozen minigun turrets for backup.[9]
  • The Godfather: The Game tries to encourage you to take on the Tattaglias first, followed by the Straccis and Cuneos, leaving the Barzinis for last. However, due to the Wide Open Sandbox nature and lack of Broken Bridge, it's perfectly okay to take them on in any order if you're skilled enough.
  • In the first Knights of the Old Republic, you can go through the four planets after Dantooine in any order, so the difficulty actually gets easier. However, after you find the map on the first one, you get to fight a group of bounty hunters (the leader you already vanquished to get that far), after the third you get to fight Malak's apprentice, immediately after that you get to fight a toned-down version of Malak himself, and then you get to fight Malak on full difficulty in the ending sequence.
  • Skies of Arcadia has a variation: while Galcian is the Big Bad, he isn't the Final Boss. That honor goes to Ramirez, his Dragon. While Ramirez is fanatically devoted to his boss, he's the most powerful of the game's villains.
  • King of Fighters: the later end bosses tend to be stronger, but there's no consensus on which is the hardest.
  • Appears in the all of the Tales (series) games. You encounter stronger enemies and bosses later in the game, though scripted fights with major villains do occur. There are some accessions, such as in Symphonia and Vesperia, where you would encounter a villain that you wouldn't fight until much later in the game. Another partial-departure with it occurs in Tales of the Abyss, where you will end up repeatedly fighting these bosses called the Six-God-Generals throughout the game, and they of course get stronger each time.
  • Played relatively straight in both Mass Effect games. In the first game, the initial antagonists are the mechanical Geth and rogue Spectre Saren, whom is eventually revealed to be working for Sovereign, a Reaper, who are Eldritch Abominations intent on destroying the galaxy's organic life.
  • In Mass Effect 2, the Collectors, who are abducting human colonies [10] become the main antagonists. They are controlled by Harbinger, another Reaper, though most early-game enemies are just mercenaries unrelated to the Collectors. At the end of the game, Harbinger mobilizes hundreds of Reapers, all with a personal vendetta against Shepard, which will presumably need to be dealt with in Mass Effect 3.
  • Played straight and subverted in Fable II: where the Crucible has a strict progression from Beetles to a huge rock troll, but the Big Bad has a serious glass jaw and can be killed by One friggin' crossbow bolt to the face -- or groin, if you prefer.
  • Subverted in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed: Kazdan Paratus is far harder to kill when compared to the next Boss character: Shaak Ti.
  • Averted in Borderlands, where you can easily get your arse handed to you by wandering into the wrong area and finding some high-leveled bandits.
  • In Sword of the Stars the Von Neumanns follow this. At first all they send are probe motherships that send out lesser drones; deadly to individual destroyers and almost untouchable by missiles, but otherwise lightly armed and not much trouble when you get better weapons. That's when you see Berserkers, which are much more powerful and resilient, able to sweep aside cruisers. If you still manage to prevail against multiple Berserker attacks, they deploy the Construct, which is stronger than even dreadnoughts and can cause an Earthshattering Kaboom.
  • Partially averted in Xenoblade Chronicles. The mechon mostly follow this, but the enemies found in the overworld can be many levels higher than you, for example level 35 enemies that can be found in the starting area and will all join in to kill you if you try to attack one
  • Kingdom Hearts has an interesting example. The first game has what appears to be the creator of all heartless, the embodiment of emotion corrupted. In Chain of Memories we see a preview of much more powerful beings called Nobodies who are the body and mind that's left over after a heartless is created; then we find out that the main villain of the first game is only 1/3rd of the psycho assistant of the real creator of the heartless and the villain of this game is the other 2/3rds. All of this goes to imply that the nobody and that the villain is resembling himself. Then we get Birth by Sleep in which it turns out again the main villain is more than he appears to be; in this case it turns out he used to be a very old powerful keyblade Mastter who then possesses a much younger keyblade wielder who is then split into the main villains of the first and second game. This all leads into Kingdom Hearts III in which all the previous main antagonists, minus all the side games (unless you count Birth By Sleep a side game) combined into one holy terror of a villain.
  • Lufia series. You beat Gades, a dark god of destruction, only for you notice there are three more powerful villains out there. In the Sinistrals Boss Rush, it's quite clear Gades is the least powerful mainly because he can't cast powerful spells.
  • Actually subverted in the end of Arc the Lad 2. After a long and grueling path to kill the four demon Generals trying to free the Big Bad, the final person you encounter is a lowly human monarch with no combat abilities or experience what-so-ever, who is rightly terrified of your party. Of course the demon Generals used him too because The Sealed Evil in a Can can only be released by a human. Later played straight when you have to fight the Big Bad anyway.
  • Invoked, similar to the Fire Emblem example above, by Lucifer (or Cyril) of God's Ten Wise Men in Star Ocean the Second Story. Instead of having all ten fight you at once, he splits them up among the Very Definitely Final Dungeon in order to increase the party's chance of success. The reason for this is that he, true to his namesake, wants to backstab his way into ruling the Universe by himself.

Web Comics

  • Lampshade hung in this Zelda Comic strip.
  • Lampshade hung in the first Order of the Stick book Dungeon Crawlin' Fools. The evil lich Xykon literally orders his minions to be placed throughout the dungeon in order of weakest to strongest as they approach his lair and orders them to be placed in small groups only. He does this expecting to be entertained as he watches the PCs hack their way through the dungeon on his scrying ball. Also, he secretly wants them to reach him. The trope is averted later on: after 600 strips, despite being defeated by an unarmed Fighter and acting like a buffoonish Harmless Villain, Xykon himself proves to be Not So Harmless and remains the most powerful and dangerous foe in the series, with the possible exception of the Monster in the Darkness or the Snarl. Well, the Three Fiends might be more powerful, and are certainly far more cunning, but it's unclear at this stage if they'll take over the role of Big Bad or stay content playing Chessmaster on the side.
  • Lampshade hung (yet again) in this RPG World strip.

Web Original

  • As the Dimensional Guardians from the web fiction serial Dimension Heroes continue on their journey, the Dark Overlords, despite having equal control over Creturia, seem to escalate in power. Interestingly, their forces do, as well.
  • Lampshaded in Legend of Neil. Wizzrobe lures Neil inot the first dungeon full of relatively weak monsters, but is Genre Savvy enough to wonder why he didn't lead him instead to dungeon 7, which is where Ganon's strongest minions dwell.

Western Animation

  • Jackie Chan Adventures justifies this by saying that, due to the cosmic Balance of Good and Evil, if one evil is destroyed, it causes another, stronger evil to fill in the gap (the heroes, of course, only receive the Old Master's warning right after the villain's been destroyed, which leads to their Sorting Algorithm issues). Other than that, the series more or less kept Big Bad Shendu as the strongest foe of choice.
  • In an aversion, while he's received some upgrades over the years, Megabyte from ReBoot is not only still the main villain, but with the exception of the now-deleted virus Daemon, he seems have become the most powerful virus in existence!
  • In Code Lyoko, XANA's power increases every time they return to the past. So, though the Lyoko Warriors get better at fighting them, new and tougher monsters appear on Lyoko, and the specters sent to the real world gain greater powers and versatility over time.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender is an interesting variation. They started with Anti-Villain Zuko, who was superseded by Admiral Zhao as the main threat. After Zhao's death came Zuko's Magnificent Bastard Dark Action Girl sister Azula, the main threat for the second season, who posed far more of a threat than Zuko and Zhao combined and whom Zuko rejoined in the season finale. The variation comes from the Fire Lord being identified as the Big Bad from the very start of the series, both the audience and the protagonists fully aware that no matter how many enemies they face he would remain their ultimate goal.
  • Surprisingly, The Fairly OddParents... Timmy first starts off having to deal with mean babysitters and school bullies, eventually upgraded to his crazy fairy-hunting teacher. Now he routinely has to deal with the Evil Plan-loving Pixies and Anti-Fairies who seem to be content with nothing less than the total domination and remaking of both Earth and the magical world. This reflects his getting deeper into the world of magic, where the stakes are higher: later on there is The Darkness which is a threat to the normal galaxy and the magical universe. Timmy is thrown right in the midst of it.
  • Inverted in Ben 10, where each progressive seasons' Big Bad would actually be less powerful than the previous one (along with having smaller plots and fewer episodes dedicated to their plot arcs). Season 1's Big Bad was the hero's Arch Enemy, the most feared alien in the galaxy, bent on galactic conquest, who punches mountains apart and bodyslams buildings hard enough to make them explode. The following seasons featured as Big Bads an 11-year-old who shared the hero's superpowers and whose sole goal was getting revenge on the hero, an alien ghost who "only" wanted to Take Over the World, and finally a guy in Powered Armor who only appeared in one episode (albeit a 2-part, 1 hour one), who had to assemble a team of previous secondary villains to do all his fighting for him, and whose big plan was basically to steal a Applied Phlebotinum battery that allowed his power armor to shoot Eye Beams.
  • Subverted in WITCH, where the relative power levels of Big Bads, Dragons, and Mooks seem to spike up and down from time to time. The most powerful evil entity in the series is Prince Phobos, fought by the girls at the end of season one and a bit at the end of season two. He's always dangerous, and always requires the guardians to pull some kind of Xanatos Gambit to beat. Season two's villain is Nerissa, less powerful but more cunning than Phobos. Season two's Quirky Miniboss Squads elevate in power throughout the season (from Phobos' former mooks to custom-created elemental monsters and finally to the former Guardians themselves), but despite this, Nerissa's power remains generally the same, even as she absorbs Hearts throughout the season. Nerissa frequently runs from the guardians rather than fight them, as she gets trounced whenever she faces them directly. She's still a threat because of her planning, however. By the end of it all, the final battle of season two is against a bad guy who's as powerful as Phobos and Nerissa combined: The Dragon Cedric, who has consumed Phobos in order to absorb his and Nerissa's powers, along with the powers of the former Guardians, but because he doesn't know how to shot elements, he goes down in a few minutes in spectacular fashion.
    • Interestingly, they never actually fight Phobos at his normal level. All fights between him and the main characters have been when he's gained some sort of power boost.
  • Danny Phantom.
    • In the series, Danny's first major foe was a Lethal Chef who did little more then throw a pissy fit over a changed menu. Slowly, but surely he combats more appropriate villains ranging from The Hunter, the Big Bad, a sadistic emotional sucker, and even his own Bad Future self. By the last season, he's battling ghosts with God-like powers.
    • In the movies, Danny Phantom played with this one a bit. In each successive movie, the villain's physical power and general imposingness decreased, but their actual threat level increased. The first movie villain, Pariah Dark, was by far the most powerful character in the series (four Dannys in four Humongous Mecha could barely restrain his de-powered form), yet he only managed to control the town for a day. Next came Danny's Magnificent Bastard future self, followed by a frail ringmaster named Freakshow who nonetheless manages to warp the entire country to his liking. The biggest bad of the series ultimately turns out to be an asteroid.
  • Teen Titans both uses and ultimately subverts this with its seasonal Big Bads
    • Season 1: Slade is very cunning but he's only one Badass Normal against a superpowered team; he can take any of them one-on-one, but against the whole team he gets curbstomped badly. As a result, he spends most of his time hiding in the shadows and plotting.
    • Season 2: Slade is back, but this time he's got Terra, one of the most powerful characters in the show, working for him. He loses only when she turns on him.
    • Season 3: Brother Blood has a wide range of Psychic Powers that let him control large groups of minions and handle the entire team with minimal effort. It takes the power of Deus Ex Machina to finish him off.
    • Season 4: Trigon is the demonic personification of evil and is every bit as tough as that implies; once he's out of his can he causes Hell on Earth in moments. He only goes down at all because Raven is his daughter.
    • Season 5: The Brain breaks the pattern. He's very smart but physically helpless; even with his Quirky Miniboss Squad and Legion of Doom allowing him to present a global threat, he's still not on Trigon's power or danger level.
  • Justice League makes it clear that they formed (and reformed) the league because they anticipated progressively stronger enemies. In a neat inversion, the Legion of Doom was organized specifically because the league was so powerful and the bad guys needed some sort of fraternity to put them on a similar level.
  • Played straight with the epic multi-parters on Gargoyles. "Awakening" had Demona and Xanatos, who are certainly dangerous enemies but weren't really trying to do anything beyond controlling Goliath and his clan for use in their future schemes. In "City of Stone", Demona has acquired a spell that lets her turn the entire human population of New York to stone, making her much more dangerous. In "Avalon", the enemy is the Archmage, who is made even more powerful by the Artifact of Doom he's toting. In "The Gathering", the clan is up against Oberon, a being with godlike powers and no morals beyond his immediate whims. Finally in "Hunter's Moon" Demona's back again, this time with a virus that can destroy all non-gargoyle life on earth, making her even more dangerous than Oberon, even though she's far less powerful. Averted in the bulk of the series, though, where they face enemies of varying power-level throughout.
  • In X-Men Evolution, the team starts out mostly going up against the Brotherhood, a gang of mutants who are powerful, but not terribly competent (or, for the most part, terribly evil), making them fairly easy opponents. At the end of the first season they meet Magneto, who is far more powerful, cunning, and professional than his pawns, and he only gets later on when he starts being accompanied by his elite Acolytes. In the third and fourth seasons, though, the focus shifts to Apocalypse, the most powerful mutant ever, capable of defeating almost any other character in the show with ease and possessing world-spanning plans.
  • Played very literally in the Guild of Calamitous Intent of The Venture Brothers fame. Enrolled villains (and protagonists alike) are ranked in order of their threat level; a low-ranking villain such as The Monarch is a good fit for a wash-up scientist like Doctor Venture, while a full-fledged superhero such as Captain Sunshine needs an equally sinister antagonist to match him. Villains and protagonists can increase (or decrease) in rank if their skills improve (or degenerate). And it's all good for keeping the bureaucracy happy.
  • Xiaolin Showdown features a strong example of this, here is a list of the big bads as they vary from season to season:
    • S1: Jack Spicer a self proclaimed "evil boy genius" who, despite being whiny and idiotic, still put up a good fight, and kept the monks on their toes throughout the first season. Ever since then, outside of a few Throw the Dog a Bone Moments he's treated as little more than a nuisance, that the monks make short work of, especially in season 3!
    • S1-S3: Wuya is basically a sentient Sealed Evil in a Can, remaining a (mostly) harmless ghost for the majority of the Show's run, but when her true form is finally revealed in the season 1 finale, she's Nigh Invulnerable and single handedly conquers the World. They defeat her by getting a MacGuffin from the last person who beat her, that turns her back into a ghost. She's once again re-fleshed in season 3 albeit with her powers nerfed by another villain for being too untrustworthy. Still she's a worthy foe whenever she's fought.
    • S2: Chase Young is introduced as an unstoppable martial arts master with a taste for dragons, he soon blossoms into the new big bad for season 2, enacting a nefarious scheme to turn one of the heroes to the Heylin Way. He's so competent, he's never been bested in straight 1 vs 1 combat by the main characters. While still playing a very active part in season 3, he eventually gets overshadowed by....
    • S3: Hannibal Roy Bean the show's embodiment of true evil, the only character that has no trace of a likability to him. His theoretical victory over the protagonists is described (by Chase Young no less) as being WORSE than the end of the world. Far....far worse. While not exactly stronger than Chase, he's easily more dangerous.
  • My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic looked to be heading this way, but has recently averted it.
    • First, there was Nightmare Moon. Perhaps more powerful than her sister Celestia, she was however defeated by the main cast with little fuss once they acquired the Elements of Harmony.
    • Then came Discord, a God of Evil who was so powerful enough that Celestia and Luna had to team up to defeat him last time; against the main characters he's able to neutralise the Elements of Harmony twice (once by stealing them, and once by breaking the friendship that powered them). The only way Celestia and Twilight are able to beat him is by being clever.
    • This is averted with the next villain however, Chrysalis, who is substantially weaker than Discord and possibly weaker than Nightmare Moon. However she is also a shapeshifting Emotion Eater who successfully Brainwashed the captain of the Royal Guard to expose Canterlot to her invading horde, and who—as a result of absorbing all the love surrounding a wedding--beat Celestia in a fair fight. She’s also clever enough to quickly prevent the main cast from acquiring the elements of harmony, thus increasing the tension through denying them most of the resources they previously counted on.

Real Life

  • Any sort of multi-round elimination tournament, from spelling bees to professional sports championships, works a lot like this: the first round includes (and eliminates) the less-skilled participants, then the moderate ones get culled in the second round, and so forth, until only the top two contenders are left to face off for the trophy. Bracketed tournaments often "seed" the teams/participants. In the very first round, the participant who is most likely to win is pitted against the participant who is least likely to win. This practice tries to avoid situations where the best and second best participants face off in an early round (giving the third best a go at number one without having to go through number two). When the competition results are uninteresting (first seed places first, second seed places second, etc) the people who drew up the competition brackets sit around and congratulate themselves. The point is that the matches in the later stages will have been made as interesting as possible, with the maximum possible number of top seeds still in contention.
    • Partially averted by the FA Cup in England. Teams in upper leagues enter later than those in lower leagues. However, the draws are entirely random. The Third Round Proper has the 44 Premier League and Championship teams (the top two leagues in English football) joined by 20 teams that have made it through the previous rounds. There is nothing stopping the teams placed first and second in the Premier League from being drawn against each other in the third round.
  • If an army were to invade Thailand, they might find this sort of situation. The troops on the borders of the country are usually not the best available. The best are stationed near the capital, but that's mostly because they are needed in case of a coup, either to help or hinder.
  • Tends to happen with dictatorships, as the dictator generally likes keeping his Praetorian Guard next to him in the rear, while sending out waves of Cannon Fodder.
    • Not necessarily, as dictators often serve other requirements at home than in the field, i. e. what they really want in their capital is a strong security and secret police to hold down the civilian populace, not so much crack field units to fight foreign invaders after these succeeded in defeating the rest of the army. In that way, the original Praetorian Guard of ancient Rome was special not so much because they were an elite but because they were the only troops allowed near Rome (and a number of emperors found to their cost that you could not always count on their loyalty). Quite often the legions operating on the frontiers had more combat experience and tended to be loyal to their commanders.
  • Most wars subvert this trope- at the beginning of the war both countries will be at their best but as one side begins to suffer defeats and begins losing its territory its professional soldiers will have been killed off and it comes down to the point of sending old men and boys to the front. e.g. World War I, Germany in World War II, etc....
  • Some commanders tended to keep certain elite forces in reserve to avert a crisis in case of a reverse, and thus the opposition would usually only encounter them after they defeated non-elite units. This was most pronounced with Napoleon, who carefully assembled his Imperial Guard from among experienced and distinguished veterans, and even subdivided it into Old, Middle and Young Guard. In the campaigns up until 1812 the infantry of the Old Guard in fact saw very little action (its cavalry and artillery was another matter), but in those of 1813, 1814 and 1815 it became necessary to actually use it in battle almost as a matter of routine. However the Guard actually contributed surprisingly few manpower to the personal safety of the Emperor and his headquarters (in 1814 he was once nearly captured by roving cossacks).
  • The 2010-2011 "Arab Spring" protests in the Middle East seem to have evoked this trope. Zine Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia quickly evacuated to Saudi Arabia in the face of rising demonstrations. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt refused to abdicate power in the face of massive protests, and used cynical tactics like sending in plainclothes cops to engage in looting. He eventually stepped down after eighteen days. Then we have Mohammar Gadafi of Libya, who has used airstrikes and mercenaries against their own people, and was killed by rebel forces after a Civil War and Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, who has also imposed brutal crackdown methods on the people rebelling against him, and has the support of China, Russia and Iran, which has lead to sanctions against him being vetoed in the UN.
  • Saddam Hussein's strategy during the 2003 invasion did so as well, as described by John Keegan in the Daily Telegraph: "Saddam's correct strategy would have been to group his best forces in the south, to oppose the Anglo-Americans as far from the capital as possible, and then to conduct a fighting withdrawal up the valleys of the great rivers, leaving devastation behind.... In orthodox military practice, the Republican Guard...should have been committed first, to blunt the coalition onset. The regular army should then have been committed to reinforce the Republican Guard when and where it achieved success. The paramilitaries should have been kept out of battle, to harass the invaders if the regular defence collapsed....Saddam has fought the battle the other way around."
  • The American Revolution (for a given value of "evil", anyway). In early battles the British were led by Thomas Gage, a poor strategist who didn't take the American forces seriously. After some humiliating losses, Gage was replaced by the much more competent General William Howe, assisted by brigadiers Henry Clinton and John Burgoyne. After the pivotal defeat at Saratoga, Burgoyne was captured, Howe resigned in disgrace, and Clinton was essentially Kicked Upstairs. General Cornwallis, who had fought George Washington's army at Trenton earlier in the war, took over for the much bloodier southern campaigns. Cornwallis' defeat at Yorktown ended the war.
  1. Mount Doom? It's right over there, but you have to go through the Hills of Moderate Evil, which are themselves on the far side of the Forest of Inconvenience, reachable via the Ghibli Hills.
  2. A very strong human had a rating of about 100, while the heroes' rating was over 9000
  3. The prologue of the first book describes it. This is a Retcon. The original Lensman series consisted of Galactic Patrol, Gray Lensman, Second Stage Lensman, and Children of the Lens, all originally published in Astounding Stories magazine. In this version, the Eddorians weren't revealed as The Men Behind the Men Behind the Men Behind the Men until the last set of stories. When E. E. "Doc" Smith sold the rights to a book publisher, his editor felt the lack of foreshadowing made the series a bit silly and asked Smith to write a prequel introducing the Eddorians from the beginning. Smith took an old, unrelated novel of his, Triplanetary, added the prologue and tweaked the plot to fit the Lensman universe. He then wrote First Lensman to bridge Triplanetary with the original series.
  4. It isn't until Esther McQueen becomes Secretary of War and reorganizes the system that they manage any significant strategic victories. When Thomas Theisman overthrows Chairman Saint-Just and restores the original Republic, the State Sec apparatus and political commissars are cleared out entirely, and the finest generals Haven has available can use whatever means they have at their disposal to fight the war with everything they learned in the first war. The second war does not start out well for Manticore.
  5. This progression is grounded in the plot by Tok'ra. He says that every time the Tau'ri defeat a System Lord an even worse one inevitably takes his or her place. By killing Ra, and others, SG-1 kept disrupting the Goa'uld balance of power, allowing more aggressive Goa'uld to sweep up now-leaderless forces and rise in threat level. They didn't cause Anubis, but probably sped up his timetable. They did make the Replicators more dangerous, by giving the nanotech precursor of the Replicators to the Asgard, from whom it was then captured. A self-application of Stop Helping Me! The Ori only found out about the Milky Way galaxy when Daniel Jackson and Vala accidentally warped over to their home galaxy and caused a scene. An unfortunate coincidence, perhaps, but still their doing.
  6. A few determined level grinders choose to go after them anyway, for the experience they give makes it very easy to reach level 50 before even fighting the first boss
  7. Who approaches your party in the middle of the street, loudly boasting that he is a master assassin, and proceeding to engage all of you and the guards all at once. Too Dumb to Live.
  8. Imports are boosted to a minimum skill level, which helps but not that much. The freaking bunny will probably pose a challenge to an imported character.
  9. Speedrunning the game is hard: you can get to the final battle via San Francisco. But to get there from your starting location, you have to pass near Navarro which is chock full of Enclave soldiers and plasma turrets. Regardless how good you are, chances are very high that you will stumble into at least one Enclave patrol or a pack of Aliens/Floaters/Centaurs/Deathclaws. If this happens at level 2, you should reload immediately since you will be dead in the first turn anyway. Even an experienced character will have trouble here.
  10. to build a human-based reaper