The tendency of video games which have separate maps for movement and combat to represent every "encounter" as a single sprite, regardless of the number of enemies actually present in the encounter.
See also Party in My Pocket, for when the player and their allies are represented this way.
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In RuneScape, back before they changed it, this was actually an effective (if dishonest) strategy for Player Killing. Due to the game's rendering engine, when multiple people crowded onto the same square, the only visible one was the top one. People rounded up 8 of their friends in a multi-way combat area and put the lowest level on top, to act as "Hey, I can kill this!" bait.
Star Trek Online will sometimes show an enemy sensor contact titled 'enemy' at a distance, only for it to multiply into 'enemies (3)' and then divide into clusters of enemies as you get progressively closer, sometimes with you ending up facing off against a small armada of enemy ships.
World of Warcraft has a few "mounted" enemies where both mount and unit are counted as two separate mobs. Although this varies; some separate as soon as they are pulled, some separate partway through both being damaged enough, and others stay together until one or the other dies. Some even don't count the mount/rider until they separate.
Role Playing Games
The Trope Namer is a Flash RPG called MARDEK, which Lampshades many RPG tropes. Early in Chapter 2, you fight a bandit who, just before attacking you, says, "Now, Guards, you stand no chance against me, 'cause I'm actually four blokes!" Cue a battle with four bandits.
And further parodied in Chapter 3 when Muriance sics his "bandits hiding in the shadows" on you.
Final Fantasy I had Bikke the pirate, who had only two henchmen visible on the map. When the fight starts, there's suddenly nine pirates.
And that's only in the remakes. In the original NES version, all you see on the map is Bikke, so his team just sort of appears out of nowhere.
A set of 4 doll sprites that were actually 6 that could combine into a boss.
Hooded enemies that attacked you but were often nothing more than a couple of imps, soldiers or other weak enemies.
Final Fantasy V plays it straight with the battles against Gilgamesh's mooks at the Great Bridge and Xezat's fleet, but actually inverts it when you leave castle Bal for the first time; three monster sprites come charging at you, but only one enemy is actually fought.
Final Fantasy VI does this at times, such as the beginning battle between the Moogles & Locke against the Narshe soldiers, and again when Kefka and the Imperial Forces invade Narshe for the Esper, among other examples of scripted fights.
Even worse when you fight the Vector Lythos enemy in Kefka's Tower, who actually manage to pull this off in-battle. Whenever you fight them, it looks like there's only one, which seems fortunate since they are among the weakest enemies in the entire tower. But there's actually four, overlayed on top of one another.
The Rom Hack, Pony Fantasy VI uses this in the Phoenix cave with a stack of Chaos Drgns
Pretty much every single fight in Super Mario RPG, as you'll only see one sprite on the main map, then go into battle and see a lot more, including numerous enemies that had no map sprites and only appeared in battle. You could run into a Goomba and find yourself fighting one Goomba and two much larger, nastier monsters.
Both the Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario series have this. One enemy on the map can easily be between three and five enemies in battle, including those that only show up alongside other enemies in battle.
Interestingly, Mario has the ability to jump on enemies before a battle starts. However, if you try this on a spiky enemy, you'll get hurt. However, if the enemy on screen isn't spiky, Mario can jump on it and damage every enemy in battle, even if said battles happen to include spiky enemies after the Fight Woosh.
Inverted at the beginning of Mario & Luigi: Dream Team. You're attacked by two "Grombas", yet when the fight starts... There's only one.
Played straight in other parts, where you see so many enemies on the overworld... and then in battle another one flies in via the background and starts attacking from there. Or the dream world enemies or viruses, where one mook on the overworld means up to SIXTEEN mooks in the battle, along with another random guy of a different species who appeared from absolutely nowhere.
Averted in EarthBound. With the exception of enemies summoned by enemies in combat, every enemy you meet is represented by an individual sprite, and gather together at the beginning of a battle during the Fight Woosh.
In Chrono Cross, you touch one enemy on the map, you're in battle with 2-4.
Chrono Trigger is a rare early example of an RPG that goes into battle mode using the current screen as a backdrop. Since there's no Pocket Dimension for battles, they would sometimes avert this trope by having all enemies begin on-screen, but frequently they would play it straight by having them walk in from just off-screen or teleport in exotic ways, and sometimes they played with it by having enemies summon or awaken others when encountered.
Does play the trope straight in a couple encounters where one enemy will unexpectedly split into multiples.
In The Reconstruction, the Preexisting Encounters on the main map are only one sprite but usually trigger a few monsters in battle. However, all unavoidable Preexisting Encounters have you fight exactly the number of enemies as there are sprites. This includes boss battles, almost all of which have flunkies that you can see clearly on the map pre-battle. (Except for the boss of chapter 1 and chapter 2, whose flunkies come out of nowhere)
Destiny of an Emperor has battles between armies of thousands, but only the generals leading each army are seen.
Both Lunar games for the PS1. Enemies are visible on the map as somewhat indistinct figures. Touching one of them starts a battle with up to 8 monsters.
Played straight in Xenosaga 2 and 3. What appears to be one mech on the map can turn out to be up to 7 different enemies.
Persona 3 and Persona 4 have an... interesting version of this. Shadows always appear on the map as a single creature... but in 3, its size changes depending on how many enemies will be in the fight, and in 4, its size changes based on the enemies' level. The larger the Shadow, the more difficult the fight. (Be careful - in 3, the tiny Shadows have a tendency to be solo Demonic Spiders.)
Played straight (typically) by Avernum. The largest overworld sprite graphic can only hold four people. Good enough for your party, not for the empire or wandering tribalists. Exceptions: Stationary guardsmen and triggered encounters.
Visions & Voices uses tiny white clouds to represent enemies. Touch one and you're suddenly in battle with 3-5. Since almost all boss battles are optional, bosses are also represented on the map as a single sprite that you need to walk up to to fight...most of which turn out to be Dual Bosses.
In Mega Man Battle Network, any Mook with a generic appearance will, instead of fighting you, send out viruses. Deleting them often deletes the master as well. The exception to the rule is Battle Network 4, in which the generic bad-guy Navis actually get to do their own fighting, and the number of them you see is the number you'll fight (Though the solitary ones more often then not are assisted by viruses).
The sequel series, Star Force, also works this way sometimes — but not always (Jammers, for instance, will fight you personally).
Ultima III, IV, and V, stack groups of up to sixteen into the same sized square as the player party - which itself can consist of up to (respectively) four, eight, or six members - whether it's a group of subterranean slime, food-devouring gremlins, human rogues or human-sized orcs, or freakin' dragons, sea-serpents, or two-headed giants, with the odd Eldritch Abomination thrown in for good measure. Better still, a troop of up to eight or sixteen guards can stand in the same space that a single townsperson occupies; one wonders how all those ridiculously overmuscled brutes stand so close together. Units Not to Scale indeed.
Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker shows individual monsters roaming around the areas which you touch to enter battles, but you might see two or three monsters once the battle starts.
Dragon Quest VIII has a few special enemies that show up on the map, but generally, you get what you see with those — one monster on the map means one in the battle.
Dragon Quest VI does this during a certain sequence, where you can battle a monster sprite that turns out to be two enemies in-battle, despite the game saying it's only one beforehand. Averted by their boss, you do face only one guy there.
Enemies in Dragonfable are shown as single monsters on the screen during quests, but when you actually touch them to do battle, you could wind up fighting anything from one to three of them at a time.
Enemies in Albion appear as single sprites of a specific monster while on an Island Map. This is usually the strongest monster in the stack, although one stack may consist of hordes monsters of the same type, sometimes accompanied by stronger versions, or a mixture of different kinds of monsters. In first person dungeons, a single stack is represented by multiple sprites more or less proportionate to the actual composition of the stack (i.e. if you see a large number of Animal Demons coming at you, you can bet they will fill up the entire field - instant doom, or unlimited free XP, depending on your skills). Beware, though, because sometimes the dungeons play it straight too, with several enemies showing but each of them attacking as more than one.
Stable in the Grandia series; even though you only see 1-3 mooks onscreen there are suddenly more of them in the actual battle.
The first Phantasy Star showed only one monster on screen for all battles. You could only tell how many there actually were by their Hit Point counts. Also, one shot of Odin's guns or Noah's Thunder spell damaged them all, maybe they were really lined up... The final boss is actually two monsters as well, but in that battle the HP is not shown. (You can tell because it normally attacks twice per turn but towards the end of the battle it sometimes attacks just once because you killed the second monster.)
Most of the SaGa games not on the Game Boy use this trope. While the original releases of SaGa 2 and SaGa 3 have Random Encounters, the Nintendo DS remakes instead show enemies on the map screen who hardly ever represent a single monster. If you run into one of them and there are other enemies close enough, the result is a linked encounter. More enemies in the link will result in more enemies in battle.
This is a common occurrence in The Last Remnant. Enemies appear as a single model in the world, and you can link multiple enemies into larger fights, but each single world model may represent multiple units with multiple members in each unit. It's especially noticeable with insects, wherein a single bug encountered on the map turns into three groups of three in the actual fight.
Several enemies in TCT RPG turn into multiple foes, but they are all represented as single units.
Septerra Core. When you pick a fight with a cluster of enemies, there are about 50% odds that there's at least one more hiding offscreen.
Touhou Labyrinth takes this one step further: even in battle, there are some rare enemies that literally stack their sprites on top of one another, preventing you from seeing just how many there are. Isn't it suspicious to just run into a single mook in this otherwise difficult dungeon?
Mount & Blade does this, but the actual number of troops + prisoners is displayed alongside the sprite, and as you get closer, you can see the number and type of troops in each party.
The Tales Series games that lack random encounters usually do this, the exceptions generally being the large monster types who do occasionally appear alone.
It also occurs in some boss fights, where the boss in question will inexplicably have some minions with them, despite clearly being alone in the cutscene beforehand.
In the Exile series world map, enemy clusters would be represented by a single unit regardless of size. Worse, in games with multiple-tile units (say, giants, which would take up two squares vertically), these units were ineligible for display on the overmap and were always shown as whatever smaller escort they had. It wasn't uncommon for an ogre on the world map to turn into a squad of ogres and bears, or ogres and ursagi (intelligent bears), or ogres and giants, what have you.
Their 3D remakes, the Avernum series, work similarly: only four models will be shown on the world map, regardless of the number of individuals.
Averted in Final Fantasy XIII, but in a sneaky-like way. Every last enemy you will face on the battle screen is represented on the map screen, and for most fights this is fairly straightforward, where running into a group of monsters means that you fight the group of monsters. In later areas, though, the game delights in placing the monsters on the map in such a way where the player may think they are avoiding the Demonic Spiders by engaging low-level monsters, but once the battle starts they are revealed to be engaging the low-levels and the 'Spiders in the same fight. Two notable (and notably cruel) examples: Sneaking alongside the edge of the area to avoid a Behemoth King...just makes the player more vulnerable to the Man-Eating Plant coming up out of the greenery they're sneaking in and prompting an encounter with both, and there is one case where sneaking past an Adamantoise will result in meeting up with its wimpy wolf escort.
In The Way, on-screen enemies on the map will usually turn out to be a large group of enemies when the player walks into them for a battle, especially when Rhue currently has other characters in his party.
Ar tonelico: Melody of Elemia has a rare inversion with a boss fight while climbing the tower. The boss comes accompanied by one reyvateil and four Tenba guardsmen in the scripted sequence before the fight, but those four guardsmen suddenly turn into only two when the fight starts. This is due to the nature of the battle system, which maxes out at four characters on each side, and the boss and the reyvateil take up two slots automatically. Maybe the other two guards are Lazy Backup?
Rainbow Moon averts this by conveniently displaying above the sprite how many enemies it actually makes up; kind of nice of the hero to relay what he's seeing back to the player for once...
In Okage: Shadow King, enemies always appear as ghosts on the map. When you touch one, it will split up into multiple monsters.
In the Macintosh RPG series Quest Of Yipe, the second and third games can do this. A single sprite can be up to three monsters. In the third game, they can even turn out to be different types of monsters, so you could end up having to fight a much stronger one and two weak ones.
Epic Battle Fantasy: the third and fourth games use sprites to represent groups of monsters, so that harmless-looking bush could actually contain a four-wave long marathon battle. Fortunately, the encounter usually shows the strongest monster on the map, so there aren't too many bad surprises.
Eternal Sonata has a single sprite to represent a battle with up to three mooks, the representative sprite included.
Shin Megami Tensei I, II, and if... represent multiple instances of one enemy demon with a single sprite and a counter above the sprite showing how many of that demon is remaining. You can't target specific instances, only the frontmost one, although you can use multi-target skills to affect the entire lot.
Turn Based Strategy
In Advance Wars, every unit is depicted as a single soldier or vehicle on the map, but (unless it's a particularly big unit like a bomber or megatank) is shown to contain between one and five units in battle animations, depending on how much HP the unit has left.
This is a touch of realism: In actual military, a "unit" is usually a group of people.
Also seen in spiritual hex-based successor Nectaris/Military Madness, in fact in the original version of the game this held true, even for the big units! Quite strange seeing so many "Giant" tanks when the movement, sprite, and statistics would lead you to believe it would be a single unit. In the Playstation remake and PC version, however, units even more powerful than the HMB giant appear, and they DO contain only one unit.
Embraced with glee in Soul Nomad & the World Eaters. Units in the map are represented by a single "Unit Leader", but may have as much as 9 characters. Leader unit determines many things, such as unit bonus and movement type, but is also the weakness: if the leader is killed early, the entire group is defeated. You also play by such rules, with an added flavor: You literally summon whomever it is you placed on your grid by way of a pocket dimension, courtesy of Gig.
In the Heroes of Might and Magic series, groups of enemies on the map are represented in the form of a single sprite. The game lets the player view the size of the enemy, though.
Heroes of Might and Magic actually takes this a step further as the images on the batlle screen don't represent single monsters either, but whole stacks of them. This can lead to situations where you see a picture of a single green dragon on the map decide to engage it and suddenly find yourself in battle with five pictures of green dragons that actually represent 10 dragons each at which point you probably wished you had checked the size of the enemy group before attacking it. To make matters worse armies aren't always solely composed of the enemies that are shown on the map since sometimes a small number of upgraded versions of the monster is mixed into it.
This can get ridiculous if you find a stack that you'd ignored for (in-game) months or years, and has steadily grown in that time. If the monsters are weak enough to spawn in great numbers, you might be facing thousands of them, or more!
Master of Magic averts this for everything except overland map. Both in tactical combat and the unit status window, you can see the number of "figures" in the unit. The game even tracks health for each figure individually. On the overmap though, the trope is played straight. A single skeleton can mean nine six-strong units of undead, which can surprise you if you're not careful enough to check what's really there. In a more cruel way, the game also informs you only of the strongest unit type guarding a monster lair/node, omitting the packs of lesser (yet sometimes more dangerous) units that accompany it.
In Age of Wonders a squad was composed of one to eight creatures. On the game map the current strongest creature in the squad, a Wizard (e.g., you, Merlin) or a hero unit if that was the case, was the only member visible and represented the whole.
Though by clicking on the creature you got a look at the whole stack and see what and how many enemies there were.
Utilized to save on hardware calcing time in Big Time Software's Combat Mission, which due to being 3D instead of top-down like other ww2 strategy games, meaning limitations require this trope to exist. However, averted with single or dual-man units like observers and tank hunter teams. They represent from 3 to 5 soldiers each depending on setting. (as many as 8 for large conscript/fusilier groups, small groups may have a 2:1 ratio) Sometimes gets confusing with large mixed weapons columns. Also works with open-topped transport vehicles, especially double-packed transports.
On set-piece style strategy games, typically it's 1:1 on direct combat units and mortars, but a lot of the time artillery actually represents a grouping, represented by replacing the ammunition slots with the pieces themselves. For battalion-level artillery, each listing also represents a separate group. May also occur with stationary anti-air units.
Ogre Battle (and its successors) displays groups of units as a single sprite on the overworld, represented by the lead member of that group. This means quite a few nasty surprises, such as battling a seemingly-normal unit only to find yourself getting stomped by a cockatrice or elder dragon.
In the SpaceEmpires series, you're only going to see the icon of a single ship on any given tile. Unless they're in a fleet, in which case you'll see that race's fleet icon instead, no matter the size or composition of said fleet.
Played straight in Military Madness: each "unit" on the map represents a squad of eight of that particular unit. (Played mostly straight in the sequel, Military Madness 2: Operation Neo Nectaris: the only exception is the Bio-Weapon units, such as the Bio-Spider, which are displayed as single units both on the map and on the combat screen.)
Super Robot Wars Alpha 2 and 3 have the Platoon System, where you can make a team of up to four mecha (depending on the size of the unit). This goes double for your opponents. So, what will look like a single mook (or even boss character), will actually be up to four mooks (though, thankfully, not four bosses.)
In Hearts of Iron this can be either upheld or subverted. If you play with sprites, you see only one sprite representing the most dangerous unit type (hard/soft for land, carrier/battleship/cruiser/destroyer/submarine/transport for sea, and a one-sprite-fits-all for air) in that province. Switch to counters, and that one infantry sprite turns into a 4+ divisions army of motorised infantry, backed up by half a dozen single-division units of light tanks and mechanised infantry.
It's also affected by comparative Intelligence level. If you have advanced decryption and the enemy only has basic encryption, with a mouse-over you'll see an exact breakdown of the stack. If you've both got similar encryption/decryption levels, you'll be lucky if you're shown more than the enemy country's name.
In Europa Universalis III (also by Paradox), all land armies (which come in 1000-troop blocks, and which powerful nations can muster in very large numbers by mid-game at worst) are represented on the map as a single, gigantic infantryman.
Certain versions of Civilization. In IV, for instance, you could stack units on top of one another and only one would be visible (the strongest, unless you had a unit selected, in which case it would be the one that best countered your unit); however, it was nice enough to give you an icon representing how many other units existed, and you could mouse over them for more information. In II, you couldn't tell; only when they attacked would you see if it was one unit or a massive column. In V, you simply can't stack units any more.
In Dillon's Rolling Western, Grocks appear as giant foes on the main stage map, but once you engage them in combat, they are smaller and often attack in groups.
Ikari Warriors: All of the mooks die in 1 hit. When you get further in the game, the computer will send multiple mooks with identical sprites that are stacked on top of each other. Thus you have a pile of mooks that are look like a single mook. When you shoot the stack, you would see one of the sprites go into the death animation, but the rest of the stack was still coming toward you. There was no way to know exactly how many mooks were stacked like this until after you started shooting.
The Assassin's Creed series uses red (and in some games, orange) minimap dots to indicate hostile (or potentially hostile) soldiers. These dots can stand for a single soldier or a squad of up to eight, so you are advised to look before charging in.
On the main stage map of Zelda II:The Adventure Of Link black silhouettes of individual monsters will attack Link on the overworld map, revealing themselves to be crowds of mooks, and even on occasion absolutely nothing at all.
The Adventure Time game Hey Ice King! Why'd You Steal Our Garbage?!! as well uses the exact same system, in a direct reference to Zelda II.
In the X-Universe series, the Khaak Cluster is a literal example, a single M3 fighter and several M5 scoutships that travel docked together, then break apart and attack when an inviting target comes close. They then concentrate a hailstorm of Hit Scan weapons fire on the target. Faced with the bigger Clusters (one version contains 26 ships), most players prefer to hit them with a big missile at extreme range rather than risk their kyon emitters.
Spoofed in Munchkin with the monster card "3872 Orcs".
Can be taken to the extreme by using the Mate card. Now you're facing 3872 Orcs and their mates (or,just the one mate).
Many Monster Cards in Yu-Gi-Oh! actually represent multiple monsters, such as Goblin Attack Force. Inverted with the Mecha Phantom Beasts, however: while their cards depict small squadrons consisting of the Beasts themselves and their Hard Light doppelgangers, said doppelgangers manifest as Tokens summoned by their effects. In other words, even though each card shows its respective Mecha Phantom Beast accompanied by several other monsters, the cards themselves represent only a single fighter!
Also the case in Magic: The Gathering, since the good old days of Grizzly Bears and Scathe Zombies, each of which was one card, representing multiple creatures as a single card. The most impressive could be the "Scute Mob" from Zendikar, which represents ridiculous numbers of swarming bugs as a single card that gets massive very quickly.
In reference to this, the Unhinged set introduced the "Art Rampage" ability. While the traditional Rampage gave a bonus based on the number of blocking creatures, this version (as the name suggests) is based on the number of creatures depicted in the art.
In Space Hulk, genestealer monsters start out as "blip" counters until a Space Marine gets them in their line of sight. Each blip is between one and three individual genestealers.
In BattleTech, Battlearmor and infantry come in squads of four and up, and are represented on the tabletop by one unit - some miniatures will have the correct amount of units on it (for example, 5 Elementals on the same base), but some don't. The actual count for the amount of (surviving) infantry or armor in a squad is kept on a separate record sheet.
Every so often a tabletop RPG will end up modelling a group of creatures as a single "monster" for combat purposes. This is most common for swarms of bugs, rats, bats, or similar small critters that would be too much of a bother to track individually, but especially games with more abstract combat systems can also treat humanoid mooks in this way.
Pathfinder contained a strange example in the Reign of Winter campaign, which deals with an insane conspiracy, Baba Yaga, and Rasputin. When the adventuring party finds itself in WWI-era Russia, massive troops of rifle-toting early 20th century Russian infantry are modeled this way in a sharp Genre Shift from High Fantasy.
In Ginga Nagareboshi Gin Wolf Arc Raiga has his brothers Sakon and Ukon living inside his body. They can leave it, but it makes them vulnerable to attacks so usually they just pop their heads out before impact to bite the opponent. How it works is never explained and even their enemies who should know this power are surprised when they see it.
Is there something about the names "Sakon and Ukon"? Because Naruto has conjoined twins Sakon and Ukon, too. The team they belong to is called the Sound Four — or Sound Five when you actually include their leader, or Sound Six if you "mistakenly" consider Sakon and Ukon separate people.
Inuyasha's enemy Jurōmaru is a pro at this trope. Is "brother" Kageromaru lives inside his stomach, and can join the melee when necessary. They are actually indipendent, anyway.
Top Gun does this on two separate occasions when pairs of MiG-28s in close formation are read as a single plane by the F-14s' radar.
In Star Wars, sand people are known to travel in single file to hide their numbers.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows uses this near the beginning, where Sherlock points out that three people have been following Irene for some time when it turns out to be four.
Live Action TV
Star Trek: Enterprise does this on an occasion in the Xindi arc; the Enterprise NX-01 captained by Archer and a (older, and modified) copy of the NX-01 from a different timeline captained by T'Pol and Tucker's son Lorian fly in close formation so that the second vessel is seen as a sensor reflection by the enemy Kovaalan, enabling the two vessels to surprise and disable a Kovaalan vessel.
A similar incident to the Top Gun example occurs in the Star Wars Expanded Universe book Starfighters of Adumar. Adumari Blade fighters read incoming enemy squadrons as single objects until they get close, due largely to antiquated sensors when compared to the current galactic standard.
However, this is inverted by the heroes: they reprogram the IFF codes on their heavy aircraft, including bombers and escort gunships, to respond as though they were fighters. Only when they engage do they realize the contact isn't four mooks at all — it's one Giant Mook.