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Can't Catch Up
"CURSE IT! I curse our uselessness!"
Piccolo, Dragon Ball Z Cell saga-era

Due to the Sorting Algorithm of Evil, many series have a habit of making it Time to Unlock More True Potential for their characters. However, this doesn't happen uniformly; the main characters gain their new powers near-instantly, followed by whichever secondary characters are the most popular with the audience, and then, sometimes, the rest of them. This can result in a situation where a character who was introduced as the hero's equal can slip further and further behind in the power rankings, to the point where they can't even help out against the Monster of the Week, because their level of power is no longer enough to even be useful.

Something similar often happens in video games with Character Levels and more usable characters than the Arbitrary Headcount Limit will allow, but no Leaked Experience. Even if the designers go out of their way to make each character relevant in some meaningful way, some will still fall into a lower Character Tier, meaning they will spend less time in the active party and, as a consequence, be much weaker than the party's main heavy hitters. This can become a vicious circle - because the weaker characters are often left out of the party, they fall further behind, and as a result are even less likely to be included.

Designers occasionally like to punish players for this sort of behavior by throwing in a Plot Tailored to the Party, but in those cases will often structure experience gain so that a weak character can be brought up to a level comparable to the main party fairly quickly.

Can result in We Are Team Cannon Fodder, and is the flip side of Villain Decay. Compare to Redemption Demotion, where ex-villains immediately start to suck rather than slowly going through a process.

Note that while this trope is usually combat-related, it can be applied towards non-combat purposes as well, such as sports example in the Real Life section below. Another non-combat related use may be where Bob struggles and trains hard to be a good athlete, but Alice, due to her talent, is able to perform much better than him without having had to put in the same amount of effort. And no matter what Bob does, he's never as good as Alice is.

See also Spotlight-Stealing Squad.

For the video game version of this, wherein a character gets vastly stronger than other playable characters, see One Man Party.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Half the cast of Dragon Ball Z, notably anyone not a Saiyan or a half-Saiyan ended up like this.
    • There was even a subplot where the reformed Vegeta was aware this had happened to him, and was willing to make a Face-Heel Turn so he could catch up to his eternal rival. And this was before Goku revealed the third stage of Super Saiyan — Vegeta was too late, and he knows it by the end of Z. In general, Vegeta lasts slightly longer than Piccolo, as he, along with Future Trunks, were the only ones who could actually hold their own against a Cell Junior at the Cell Games, but becomes completely worthless by the Buu Saga, where Goku and Gohan both become several times stronger than him. His only use at that point is as an ingredient in a fusion. This becomes especially blatant when he tries to attack Cell and Buu respectively- the latter easily beats him down and the former KO's him with one casual slap.
    • Yajirobe suffered from the worst case of this ever. When he's introduced he appears to be on par with Goku, and quickly defeated Cymbol, one of the spawn of Demon King Piccolo, by slicing him in half, and then ate him. After that he's mostly worthless, and the only significant thing he did was cut off Great Ape Vegeta's tail to weaken him, nine years later in-universe. He appears even more interested in food than Goku, but without the training ethic.
    • Yamcha, and Chiaotzu become this to almost ridiculous levels. Yamcha didn't even get a shot at Nappa because a Saibaman took him out in only one hit (Which the Abridged Series made fun of and the Japanese turned into a Memetic Mutation), while Chiaotzu and Tenshinhan's Heroic Sacrifices didn't even so much as put a scratch on Nappa. After that point... they couldn't do a thing, spending the next hundred or so episodes on King Kai's planet.
    • Tenshinhan suffers from this as well. Tenshinhan also had another moment of usefulness, stalling Cell's second form for quite some time. While Tenshinhan does prove useful in most of his fights he quickly falls behind after the Saiyan Saga and only keeps his usefulness by using his "hax" techniques. Basically, after the King Piccolo saga, he becomes mostly worthless and gets one cool moment per arc (his Single-Stroke Battle with the Saibaman in the Saiyan arc, taking down Burter and Jeice on King Kai's planet in the Frieza arc, holding back Cell in the Cell arc, and saving Dende from being killed by Buu in the Buu arc) to remind you that he still exists.
    • Piccolo (Junior) managed to somewhat evade this trope by staying relevant all the way up to the Cell Saga despite not being a Saiyan. He still contributed to battles by defeating Dr. Gero and later on, combining with Kami to trade blows with both Android 17 and Cell in his first form. It's only afterwords that he became a jaded babysitter for Trunks and Goten during the Buu Saga, never again to regain his former glory.
    • Krillin "suffered" from this, but it actually helped make him one of the more endearing characters in the series — when push came to shove, he would show surprising heart and bravery by jumping into fights he knew he had essentially no chance of winning. Krillin in the Non-Serial Movie The World's Strongest does not even hit the Big Bad once.
      Krillin: Can't I get in one good hit???
    • Also, there's Master Roshi. He was initially stated as being the most powerful person in the world at the start of Dragonball, but by the end of the Demon King Piccolo saga, he is completely worthless and never does anything again EVER.
  • For that matter, it continues in Dragon Ball GT, where the worthlessness even spreads to most of the Saiyans as well, or more precisely, anyone and everyone who isn't fortunate enough to be named Goku!
    • Poor Uub/Majuub really got screwed over... Goku trained him as a successor originally, as the reincarnation of Kid Buu. So obviously he's way more powerful... only to be absent for the first saga. Then comes the Baby Saga... where all he really does is hold off Baby Vegeta, even after gaining the powers of the good Majin Buu. In the Shadow Dragon Saga, all he does is scream loudly for a few seconds before going down in one shot.
    • Bra could potentially become pretty dang powerful, but she doesn't really have any interest in it. Word of God states that she and Pan actually could become Super Saiyans, but Toriyama didn't think about how he could make it work on females.
  • Almost nobody other than Ranma and Ryoga ever appears to improve their skills over the seven seasons and thirty-eight volumes of Ranma ˝, which leads rather well into Overshadowed by Awesome.
    • One anime OAV has Nabiki heavily implying that the reason Akane can't catch up is because she's given up on upgrading her training regime due to Ranma always taking her battles on for her. Ranma and Ryoga are the only ones who train near-constantly and who get involved in battles the most (everyone else in the series tends to have other things to do that get in the way of training).
    • Because Ryoga is officially The Rival to Ranma, some actually view him as this, though the series itself makes it quite clear that Ranma and Ryoga are always spurring each other on to greater heights and so the one of them who is "better" keeps seesawing. Ranma beats Ryoga who comes back and beats Ranma who then comes back and beats Ryoga again, on and on throughout the entirety of the series. This belief most likely stems from the fact that Ranma is usually the one shown as having "the last laugh" in their battles in any particular story, and the fact that the flashbacks from Ryoga's introductory story all depict young!Ranma implicitly curbstomping young!Ryoga.
  • This is practically part of the first major story arc in Bleach. As the main character Ichigo seems to gain power exponentially, his comrades start to feel (or continue to be) useless.
    • It turns out that the reason Orihime and Chad developed powers in the first place was because the Hougyoku sensed their feelings of powerlessness and unleashed their true potential.
    • Chad even becomes aware of it when Ichigo has to tell him to run away from a fight. He knows his friend is just trying to help, but it hurts him so much that he goes through Training from Hell to get better. He's still not as powerful as Ichigo, but he's not useless anymore. He managed to beat one of the Privaron Espada.
    • Renji and Uryu, who were both introduced as The Rival to Ichigo, have also suffered from this trope as time went on. While, unlike Chad, they still have decent showings in Filler Arc, they honestly fared no better than Chad during the Hueco Mundo arc. Uryo hasn't even made any notable appearances in the Blood War arc, where the antagonists are Quincies. He now has a solid bow like his father's, implying an improvement in his abilities, but we still have not seen anything notable from him.
    • If we judge the fighting in the Arrancar arc though, Ulquiorra was almost miles ahead of everyone else, faring better than his other Arrancars and won all but two of his battles, and got better than Aizen who spent half of his battle screwing around. On a certain standpoint, the only reason Ulquiorra even lost was because of trickery by his enemies, whatever we can call the revival of his dead foes, and falling to pride like most Bleach villains do.
    • Taken to it's logical extreme in the arc where anyone not named Ichigo including former badasses are completely useless against the Quincy Invasion, but considering how Yhwach manhandled him, not even he is immune.
  • Sailor Moon gets a power-up every season; the other Senshi get 2 new power ups in the 5 seasons.
  • Slayers
    • The amount of magical power that a person can both naturally hold and expand in is usually pre-determined. Because she was born with an obscenely high Bucket Capacity (the natural amount of magic one possesses), Lina outranks a majority of humans in magic, including the more balanced Amelia and the Magic Knight Zelgadis (who, when he was human, was implied to have minimal magic power to begin with; courtesy of a part of his chimeric makeup, his magical power expanded). Naga the Serpent is implied to have both a Bucket Capacity that can rival Lina's and a bigger Pool Capacity (how much power can be exerted before exhaustion), but she's so self-centered and flaky that she can't perform the same feats Lina can - calling upon the power of the Lord of Nightmares, for one.
    • This applies to other races as well; Mazoku (demons), Shinzoku (servants of the Gods), and some elves all have more magical power than the other races. Fish men, surprisingly, are strong with water Shamanistic Magic, and they are the only ones who can cast the most powerful water Shamanistic spell.
  • Lampshaded in One Piece, where later story arcs have the more human characters (Usopp in particular) worried that they might become useless compared to the monstrous, inhuman strength of the other crew members.
    • Usopp is practically the poster boy; The writer himself admits that Usopp will always be the least powerful member of the crew no matter what, because he tries to keep him at a level where the reader would be able to relate to him. He does behave pretty realistically for someone under the employment of Monkey D Luffy, one of the strongest pirates in the world, and who, as far as traditional pirate vessels work, should outrank Sanji, another one of the strongest pirates in the world.
    • Nami's worry that she can't catch up to the rest of the crew leads her to ask Usopp to develop the Clima Tact for her.
    • Part of the reason for the Time Skip was to at least give the weaker cast members 2 years to catch up.
    • This is one reason (among other more important ones) why Vivi ultimately decided not to travel with her crew full-time, as well.
    • Pretty much the entire crew falls to this near the end of the first half. While Luffy only just managed to break in and out of Impel Down, with the help of some of the most notorious criminals in the world, and was pretty much The Load at Marineford. Justified in that Impel Down was seen as impenetrable by everyone, and Marineford was a battle between the most dangerous pirate crew around and the entirety of the marines. They really were biting off far more than they could chew.
    • Despite all of the above, this trope in general is completely averted in this series. While there is a huge disparity of power between, say, Ussop and Luffy, each member of the crew has skills, both in-combat and otherwise, that are invaluable to the crew, and most arcs give pretty much everyone at least something important to do, keeping everyone relevant regardless of individual strength.
    • Tashigi is also a good example. Considering she managed to become a high-ranking officer in the Marine Division stationed in the New World and has shown a fair few demonstrations of genuine skill and strength, she comes across as an effective Marine in most situations. Unfortunately for her, she often chases the Straw Hats around, who tend to leap into the most absurdly dangerous situations possible, leaving her in over her head most of the time. Her tendency to routinely challenge opponents that are clearly out of her league doesn't help.
  • YuYu Hakusho, after the Dark Tournament, got to the point where even the main character couldn't catch up. It took a rather Deus ex Machina plot twist to power Yuusuke up enough to beat Sensui, and after that, even with a solid year of training, he still had very little chance against the antagonists of the last story arc. And even though he gained the power to win, he was still only exchanging blows with Sensui. Raizen, his very powerful demon ancestor who hadn't been mentioned at that point in the story, actually had to take control of his body and finish off Sensui because of Yusuke's inexperience with his own power.That's right, it took two Deus ex Machina's in a row to ensure that the The Hero himself could stayed relevant in his own series.
  • Digimon has a history of introducing a member of the main cast who would obviously be stronger than the rest if they could keep up with the Evolutionary Levels.
    • The first was Bun in C'mon Digimon who did defeat the antagonist's monster but lost all his other matches.
    • Then Patamon in Digimon Adventure who had the most powerful digivolutions, and was always the last to reach them. Patamon had the same problem in Digimon Adventure 02, - his Fusion Dance with Armidillomon was possibly the best of them all before it fell behind by Davis and Ken getting two Mega forms for their digimon.
    • The Warriors of Darkness in Digimon Frontier could outperform everyone else even outside of their element but became fuel for the leads. Agumon X in D-Cyber fell behind in the evolution race despite having the most skilled tamer.
    • Frontier was ESPECIALLY bad about this. At least in the other seasons, the remaining characters outside the The Hero and The Lancer could still fight and defend themselves, and were at most usually only one evolutionary level beneath them, rather than reducing them to useless bystanders.
    • The way Digimon works is that even the LEVELS can never catch up to higher ones. If you're the same level, chances look even, but if you're lower or higher, the stronger level always wins, even if facing vast quantities. One particular example is the introduction of the Dark Masters effortlessly curbstomping them in succession: Metalseadramon blasted through EIGHT CHAMPIONS (two levels below his own Mega) while their attacks did nothing, and Machinedramon and Puppetmon easily crushed down SEVEN ULTIMATES (which is only ONE LEVEL BELOW MEGA). To add insult to injury, Piedmon took down both Megas (and he was one too).
  • In The Prince of Tennis, the Fudomine and Rokkaku teams are good, but are doomed to be in the shadow of Seigaku, Rikkai and Hyoutei.
  • In Vagabond, Hon'iden Matahachi chases Miyamoto Musashi's shadow, since they were childhood friends separated soon after the Battle of Sekigahara.
  • Often springs up in Gundam... and often associated with the Faux Action Girl of the series in question.
    • Sayla Mass in Mobile Suit Gundam. Doesn't get to be a pilot until the G-Flyer/Core Booster is introduced and never surpasses that. Gundam: The Origin tries to fix this by giving her a GM, but she loses that early on.
    • Quattro Bajeena in Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam spends the entire time getting his ass kicked within the Hyakku Shiki and just doesn't return to form until Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack
    • Anyone who isn't Judau, Roux or the Purus in Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ.
    • The Leos in Mobile Suit Gundam Wing. By the end of the series, there are still factions who are using them, despite their terrible combat records.
    • Katharon, the AEUG-like organization of Mobile Suit Gundam 00 is this. They use old fashioned Mobile Suits compared to Celestial Being's and the A-LAWS' GN Drive-powered suits, thus are technologically inferior to both.
  • Most of Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple's allies felt this way after Ragnarok's defeat and redoubled their efforts to catch up and, later, participate in the Desperate Fight Of Disciples tournament. Of them all, however, Kouzou Ukita takes the prize because he neglected to consider the benefits of Training from Hell and went into the tournament nowhere near the level of everyone else.
  • Of most the Wacky Homeroom in Mahou Sensei Negima!, many of them had some form of Charles Atlas Superpower, till the members of the Ala Alba went through Training from Hell, leaving the rest as a liability when several of them enter the Magic World.
    • Ayaka in particular, who was more or less evenly matched with Asuna at the start of the series, attempted to fight her again much later on, and Asuna utterly kicked her butt without much trouble.
    • Even Ala Alba's fighting elite, including Kotaro, Kaede and Ku Fei, fall hard into this by the series' end compared to Negi and Fate.
    • Anya also suffers horribly from this. When she arrives in Japan she intends to show Negi how far she's progressed, only to find out that he's waaaayyy ahead of her.
  • Naruto:
    • Sakura is quickly eclipsed by her teammates who have natural talent and get dedicated teachers. Ironicaly, Sakura is the one with all the talent at the start of the series, and she does get a dedicated teacher in Tsunade, but aside from a brief cameo showing off her new abilities (during which times she rarely makes a useful contribution), she's still on the sidelines 90% of the time. However, she's now at least caught up to base Naruto and Sasuke, if not being near their initial KCM and EMS forms respectively. Sakura continuously moves on and off on this trope. It seems like she has finally caught up to a degree, in terms of raw power, in comparison to Naruto and Sasuke. However, after briefly destroying and knocking around a few of the Ten-Tails mini clones, she is quickly overwhelmed by one of the large versions of the clones and it seemingly about the killed, only to be saved by at the last second... by Naruto and Sasuke, in true Team 7 fashion. After that she went to summon Katsuyu to do her original job of healing everyone. She hasn't fought in the War since then.
    • Many of the side characters of Naruto are eclipsed by Team 7 in the Shippuden Portion of the Series, to such an extent where even Kakashi starts to be included in this throughout the latter and more current day part. Kakashi himself admitted that Naruto may have surpassed him.
    • Ino is an especially noticeable case of Can't Catch Up. She quickly falls behind when the flaws in her Mind Transfer Jutsu are exposed and she doesn't develop any other offensive techniques. She realizes this is a problem and tries to remedy this by learning medical ninjutsu at the end of the Part I fillers, but it's clear that she's nowhere near Sakura's ability. One filler arc has her feeling like The Load as a result of having the weakest chakra control on a sealing team. However, in the Fourth Ninja World War arc, she improved her Mind Transfer Jutsu to the point where it's useful in significant battles without leaving her super-vulnerable.
    • The reason behind Sasuke's initial defection was because he felt Naruto could catch up, and indeed may have surpassed him already. This was fueled by Sasuke getting worfed in several battles which Naruto's brute strength was far better suited to dealing with. When Naruto reveals his Biju Mode in the Fourth Shinobi World War, effortlessly uses all the chakra it gives to save the entire Alliance, and then he combines it with Sage Mode, Sasuke clenches his hand into a tight fist angrily when he realizes how far ahead Naruto's come. Sasuke is at least able to fight comparably with help, and his manifestation of Perfect Susano'o means he's trying to close the gap. But its clear he needs more than even Perfect Susano'o to truly catch up.
      Sasuke and Naruto mirror Madara and Hashirama respectfully, with at times Sasuke/Madara being slightly ahead before Naruto/Hashirama shows more of their full power. Perfect Susano'o doesn't close the gap since it didn't close the gap between Madara and Hashirama. Madara needed Kurama's help just to equal the power of Hashirama's Sage Mode power, after all. A common fan theory is that Sasuke will either awaken his own Rinnegan or eat the Ten-Tails fruit to close the gap between himself and Naruto.
    • Hiruzen Sarutobi in part II. Despite being one of the strongest characters in Part I, he can't beat the Power Creep that was installed in Part II. It becomes ludicrous during the final battle with Obito Uchiha who had became the Ten-Tails Jinchuriki where he's literally one-shotted and and hasn't regenerated since. He does however finally come back and saves Naruto.
    • Pretty much anybody who doesn't have a visual justu, a kekkei genkai or have tailed beast suffer from this trope. To the point where it's even lampshaded by some members of the Shinobi Alliance.
    • Taken to ridiculous levels in the Infinite Tsukuyomi Arc where virtually anybody who isn't Naruto or Sasuke are pretty much useless in battle.
  • Aoki and Kimura of Hajime No Ippo. Though Akoki and Kimura was never, at any point, at the same level as the main fighters.
  • Imori, Amori, and Umori are a team of relatively weak minor characters from Hunter × Hunter who are defeated by Killua. Later in the series, they immediately quit the Hunter Exam after the entire room is knocked out within minutes by said Killua, who advanced insanely in power over the course of a few arcs.
  • Acknowledged and mildly deconstructed in Fresh Pretty Cure!.
    • Long after Love and Inori have gotten their Cure Sticks, Miki (Cure Berry) is still stuck using her decreasingly effective starting attack, which nearly costs the girls a battle. She spends the following episode desperately trying to invoke the Mid-Season Upgrade trope.
    • Ellen of Suite Pretty Cure ♪ accidentally wanders into this trope when a series of events causes the Fairy Tones to suffer from Heroic RROD, rendering her weaponless while Hibiki and Kanade still have their initial tag team attack to fall back on.
  • Mildly subverted in Dai no Daibouken. While it's true that Dai's friends can't catch up with him in terms of battle prowess, if it weren't for them he would have died every single time he battled powerful foes. Also, Dai's friends rarely get to sit back and watch as there are enemies that they have to fight while Dai is busy duking it out with the most powerful one, and Dai's friends regularly go through harsh trainings which pay off significantly.
  • Colonel Dasten in The Big O has himself and the entire Military Police as this. He's actually expressed frustration several times that they can't do anything without Roger's help.
  • Lucy of Fairy Tail: Even though the series is flooding with badass, there just doesn't seem to be enough for her. Ironically, Lucy is the only member of the cast who consistently gets more powerful by getting more Stellar Spirits. It's just that everyone started out so far above her that they rarely need to get more powerful.
  • The initially powerful character of Pop in Ojamajo Doremi takes four seasons to reach what for the rest of the cast was a second-season power level. Her problem is that all the magical training in the series is done at night, and she can't stay awake long past dark. Justified in that she's five years old in the first season.
  • A lot of racers in Future GPX Cyber Formula became less and less powerful racers as the series progresses, especially Randoll and Shinjyo, while Kaga became the only racer powerful enough to challenge Hayato. Ironically, this is balanced by the fact that Asurada can't catch up him(it?)self, because Hayato's team couldn't afford constant development of racing technology. Hayato suffers repeated losses onscreen and offscreen.
  • Nana in Elfen Lied. Each time she has a major fight, she actually has a strategy and makes a good showing—and each time she gets her little ass kicked in a major way, usually because she severely underestimates the viciousness of her opponents. Lucy cuts her to pieces, despite being overwhelmed by Nana's vectors on more than one occasion; Mariko plays with her unmercifully, till she makes the ironic mistake of taunting Nana about killing Kurama; She shocks the dandy-ish Nousou with her speed when Maple House is invaded, but the Mariko clones are like a steel wall to her; Even when facing only one of them, and after repeatedly getting the drop on her, Nana finds that her opponent has taken the time to take her 'Papa' Kurama hostage, leading to another severe, if truncated, beatdown.
  • Everybody in Rurouni Kenshin who isn't the titular hero start the series behind (excepting The Rival Saitou), and never, ever catch up despite gaining level(s) in badass.
    • However, when Kenshin's mentor Seijuro Hiko shows up, even Saitou and Kenshin are outclassed. It's stated that Kenshin will never catch up, because his body just doesn't possess the raw physical strength to use the Hiten Mitsurugi style to its fullest.
    • Yahiko does catch up to Kenshin in the epilogue, but this is a retired Kenshin who stopped practicing swordsmanship due to years of self-abuse and combat wounds catching up with him, not Kenshin as he was in his prime.
  • Yukimitsu from Eyeshield 21 went through this, and for good reason. He had never played American football (or any sport) before, had never been involved in a single play, and despite going through the Death March, was still declined as a starting player. In the end, though, while he was far from the most athletic Devil Bat, he turned out to be the smartest and easily one of the most dedicated members.
  • Kawachi in Yakitate!! Japan was never as innately talented as Azuma, but in the first half of the series he made up for it with hard work and still managed to hold his own. Then, ironically after undergoing a bout of special training, he descended into the realm of joke character, and in the final story arc was deemed so worthless that he was stuck in the audience watching his supposed teammates do all the work.
  • Medaka Box:
    • Many of the other protagonists start out behind Medaka, including Zenkichi. Akune and Kikaijima get their moments, but aren't able to catch up for most of the Minus arc. Former enemies get their asses handed them by newer villains.
    • Najimi Ajimu forces this on pretty much everyone else in the series( except Ihiko who is immune to skills), from the sheer number and variation of her abilities if nothing else, which span everything from controlling her breast size to becoming God. As for the how many she has...
    Ajimu: 7,932,135,441,523,222 Abnormalities. And 4,925,916,526,110,643 Minuses. For a total of 12,858,051,967,633,865 skills. That's all I have.
  • In Angel Beats!, Naoi feels this way towards his father after his twin brother gets killed. While his brother was able to make remarkable works of pottery, Naoi, despite lots of practice, never really lives up to his brother's level in the eyes of their father.
  • In Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo, Rita feels this way because despite trying really hard to be a good artist, her grandfather told her she should give up because she would never be as good as Mashiro, who is able to create masterpieces without much effort. Even after she tricked Mashiro into drawing manga as a means to humiliate herself, she becomes disgusted with the fact that Mashiro's manga work is accepted for serialization, and as a result, begins to hate art, as well as Mashiro herself.
  • In Ore no Imouto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai!, Kirino trains hard to become a track star, but despite the amount of work she puts into it, she never stands out enough against other girls who put in just as much work as her, but also have some athletic talent, which she lacks. It causes her to suffer a rather brutal Heroic BSOD where she tells her brother to throw out all of her anime and games, which she was a huge fan of. Note that this a bit different from most cases, as Kirino is shown to be good at almost everything else she decides to do. It's hard to sympathize with a character who is a professional model AND author before she even enters high school when she discovers one aspect of her life she's not good at.
  • In Shakugan no Shana, Satou and Tanaka train their hardest, but as ordinary humans, can only contribute by being Mission Control. Case in point, the two can barely budge Blutsauger, but everyone else can lift it like it was as light as a feather. Satou really wishes he could join the others in battle, but eventually mellows out.
  • In Saki Achiga-Hen, Ako is friends with Hatsuse, and they're about the same level of skill. While Hatsuse goes to Bansei, a school with a very strong mahjong team, only to be unable to qualify for the team, Ako goes to Achiga, and intends to revive its mahjong team with her friends. When Ako tells Hatsuse this, Hatsuse thinks she can't possibly succeed, reasoning that if she cannot even qualify for the team (and by extension, neither can Ako), Bansei's team members are too skilled for Ako or her teammates to defeat. When Ako and her teammates go on to defeat Bansei easily, it can be seen as proof that Ako has surpassed Hatsuse.
  • In Samurai Deeper Kyo This is lampshaded and partially averted by Akira. Near the end of the manga Akira was told he wouldnt be able to go any further in power because he didnt have samurai blood(a questionable excuse as all samurai have peasant ancestors as some point) and so was stuck. His solution? Use his ice powers on himself to get a necessary power boost to fight through the rest of the series.
  • This is common in later Yu-Gi-Oh! series. Since the whole thing is Merchandise-Driven, a drought of new releases for their archetype can cripple certain characters. Not only does it give them less of a pool to work with, but Konami won't lobby for their victory, since it wouldn't advertise anything. This is particularly dangerous for characters who utilize limited archetypes. For instance, in Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, Asuka starts off as a pretty respectable player, but when Cyber Girls failed to catch on (the last set to include them, Enemy of Justice, started shipping less than halfway into the series), her Deck and win record suffered. She has to lean heavily on her Cyber Angels afterward, and being anime-only, they manage wins against Joke Characters and not much else. Similarly, Kenzan's Deck stagnated to oblivion after Dinosaur's Rage hit, and Daichi, who never saw any of his cards released after the Water Dragon set didn't work out, dropped in status from dangerous rival to complete loser. Later on, in Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds, the dearth of Plant-types following Raging Battle left Aki with nothing over 2400 ATK, and Ruka failed to see any expansion whatsoever of her already pitiful Spirit archetype after The Shining Darkness, leading to both being essentially Demoted to Extra.
  • Kill la Kill has Tsumugu Kinagase. When he first appeared he seemed a hyper-competent fighter and strategist, being able to subdue the protagonist Ryuko without any fancy powers. He was also shown to be a master of traps and some sort of Combat Medic, as he fought with needles that rendered targets paralyzed but fully healed after that. When the real Big Bad appeared and the heroes began fighting basically an Alien Invasion, his abilities suddenly became useless and he was repeatedly curbstomped without ever being useful again - probably because everyone else was either getting their Goku Uniforms upgraded or mastering the true potential of their Kamui, while he had already reached the peak a non-enhanced human could reach. On top of that, his storyline was never fully resolved and just sort of abandoned.

    Film 
  • This was the real reason for The Death of Phoenix in X-Men.

    Literature 
  • Part of Pumpkin's jealousy of Sayuri in Memoirs of a Geisha had to do with the fact that Sayuri, despite starting later than her, became a far more successful and popular geisha than her and earned more money than any of her peers.
  • In the backstory of The Wheel of Time, this was Barid Bel Medar's whole life. He was widely considered handsome, intelligent, tremendously strong in the One Power and all around an impressive guy- but Lews Therin Telamon was just a bit better at everything that Barid Bel could donote , with the end result that when under any other circumstances he would have been considered the greatest man of his age, Barid Bel ended up more or less as "that guy who's not quite as good as Lews Therin". The end result? Barid Bel went mad, changed his name to Demandred, and joined up with the Dark One, in the process going from a second-string hero to one of the Shadow's most powerful assets. His one goal in life? Find Lews Therin note  and destroy him so utterly that no one will ever think that Demandred was inferior to him again.

    Live Action TV 
  • Kamen Rider
    • The Heisei era is differentiated from the Showa era by two things: additional Riders and Ultimate Forms. The Rider with his name in the title gets his ultimate form first, naturally, and if any of the others are lucky enough to get one of their own, it'll almost always come later and/or be weaker.
    • Reversed in Kamen Rider Ryuki, though, where Ren is the first to gain his "Survive Form" and Shinji doesn't get his until several episodes later.
    • In Kamen Rider Blade, Kenzaki/Blade and Hamjime/Chalice seal all the Undead in their respective suits of spade and hearts first, and get the ultra-powerful King and Wild forms capable of vaporizing the occasional Undead-based robot that comes along. Tachibana/Garren manages to get by with his Jack Form, but poor old Mutsuki/Leangle, who was the strongest Rider in his introduction, capable of smacking all the others around, gets beat up whenever a multi-episode Undead comes along. It's ridiculous enough that, the first time Chalice achieves Wild Form, Leangle is knocked down just from him posing.
    • Hyper Kabuto probably exemplifies this, as it's sword uses the Zecters of three of the four other Riders who had shown up by the time Kabuto achieved Hyper Form, so any time a reasonably strong Worm showed up, if they were present they got to spend the rest of the fight sitting around doing nothing while Tendou killed it with a super-powered version of one of their finishers.
    • Kamen Rider Gaim, due to having a large cast of Riders, really shows this. During the first arc, most Riders were more or less equal in strength, with the exception of Kurokage and Gridon, being in a lower tier and Bravo and Zangetsu, being in a tier way above the others. The second arc introduces the next generation of Riders called Energy Riders, who are so strong that they can treat the previous generation as mere nuisances. The Title Character then receives an upgrade that puts him roughly on the level of the Energy Riders, but it does not take long for him to receive his Super Mode, Kachidoki Arms, which puts him above the power of almost everyone. At this point in the story, every Rider who isn't Gaim or an Energy Rider has only enough power to destroy mooks, or has to resort to underhanded methods to defeat said characters. And then Gaim gets an even Super-er Mode, Kiwami Arms, and they've had to start sending Monsters of the Week on the level of the show's Dragons to have anybody who can last more than thirty seconds against that.
  • Lampshade Hanging by Xander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who lamented that, while everyone around him became increasingly powerful, he was becoming useless unless the problem required fixing a broken wall. Admittedly, he became something of a Badass Normal as his fighting skills improved throughout the series, though never to the extent of Giles. In fact, as his magically-granted "Army Guy" abilities faded out, he became for a time less competent with weapons. It didn't really help either that by the time he had become Badass Normal the Big Bads were entities far more powerful than any mere vampire or bush league minor demon which were the cap on what even an exceptionally strong and well trained human could ever kill.
  • Happened for a while in season 2 of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers to Tommy. With a failed Dragon Coin, no Thunderzord upgrade was possible for the Dragon Zord, and he had to go through the "my powers are weakening" bit every other fight. The others had to wait several more episodes before their friend could catch up, with a tease of him being gone forever. Then Popularity Power kicked in and he came back as the White Ranger - which, if anything, put him too far *ahead* of the others most of the time.

    Video Games 
  • In Silent Storm, this can actually happen to the player party as the game progresses- for some reason, members of the party gain skills and experience at much slower rate than those not on the field, effectively making the benchwarmers a solid option for switching party member before the last few confrontations in the secret war.
  • Final Fantasy VII: Cloud has the main Hero slot, and Vincent, or other mostly-nonstory characters, remaining out of the loop and not developing.
  • Downplayed in games (like Chrono Trigger) that award Leaked Experience to characters who don't participate in fights. Unfortunately, it can still be played straight if the game awards less experience this way than if they did partipate in battles (again, Chrono Trigger). However, while the leaked experience to members not in your front team isn't the full amount, it's enough that they'll still be strong enough to fight close to your main party's level. The real problem is that skill points DON'T get leaked, so while your back team might be near the same level, if you never use them they won't have any of the powerful attacks your front team does.
  • Pokémon:
    • An in-universe version occurs in Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, where Brendan/May (the one you didn't choose) stops being your rival a bit over halfway through the game, being replaced by Wally who Took a Level in Badass.
    • There's a depressing case of this in Pokémon X and Y: the main rival, Serena/Calem, starts out as the person in the group who knows the most about being a Trainer. However, the protagonist just keeps getting better and better, outstripping the rival by far, and the poor bastard just can't fathom how. Unlike cases from earlier games, we're shown nothing that gives us any cause to hate this rival, so most if not all players will feel quite sorry for them, especially when, in the course of searching for information on Mega Evolutions, the protagonist and rival battle for the one Mega Ring available, and the protagonist wins easily. The other three members of the party all recused themselves from the battle, but the rival genuinely wanted it but wasn't good enough to measure up.
  • Final Fantasy IX
    • Steiner, whose underwhelming abilities didn't help the fact that once you get him back after a long absence, he's something like ten levels behind (particularly annoying, as he has one of the better Story Arcs, though he does get the experience-boosting 'Level Up' ability early on which makes leveling him up less painful).
    • Final Fantasy IX has a similar problem with Freya. While her action abilities are better than Steiner's, (albeit some of her best ones are based upon a variable) she is placed outside of the party along with Steiner. Once you finally have the option of putting her back in the party, she may be very far behind and some would prefer to stick with Amarant, who also has far more story events regarding him in the second half of the game than Freya does. Until you are forced to use her either Oelivert (Which is actually a good place to level a character like her or Steiner up) or Desert Palace.
  • This was also the central problem with Kimahri in Final Fantasy X. Because he essentially has no sphere grid of his own he has to hijack the grids of the other characters. The problem is that the other characters are so well suited to their grids that most players will find very little need for Kimarhi beyond Kilika, usually causing his progression around the sphere grid to grind to a halt. Even his Overdrives are unremarkable compared to the other characters; fully maxed out Kimarhi can cast Nova for a few thousand points... whilst Wakka will one shot nearly every enemy in the game. Kimarhi also suffers because the majority of random encounters revolve around one character being able to usually be able to one hit kill a specific type of enemy, while every other character is going to be far less effective against it. Yuna doesn't suffer from this because her role as a healer and summoner does give her a substantial use in combat other than one hit killing an enemy type. There is no real point to swapping Kimarhi into battle, since any enemy that isn't part of the one hit kill puzzle battle dynamic can just as easily be handled by anyone else. On the upside the way the experience system works, there's no reason NOT to switch him in either.
  • In Valkyrie Profile Lenneth, the titular Valkyrie must always be in your party. Since you have a couple dozen other characters to recruit and train, this means by the end of the game, she may be up to 10 levels higher than the next closest warrior. More so because you're expected to, every so often (more often than you'd like if you want the best ending) kill off one of your characters. You're rewarded with an item that boosts the stats of a second character based on how high a level the one you killed off was, and the best ending and bonus dungeon requires a fairly high total minimum level of all your sacrifices.
  • It's true to a much smaller extent in Valkyrie Profile Covenant of the Plume, where the player can choose to keep the "A team" throughout the game and not sacrifice them, but eased somewhat in that if you don't sacrifice anyone, the plot path gives you fewer characters to begin with.
  • In Tales of Phantasia, the main male (Cless) and female (Mint) characters are sent to the past, leaving behind Cless's playable buddy Chester. After recruiting new characters and acquiring many levels, the party is sent back to the present, where one of the new characters laments that Chester is now too weak (being something like 30 levels behind) to go along with the party. However, the trope is averted, because as soon as he rejoins the party, Chester gains levels quickly. Also, the PSX, GBA, and PSP adaptations all added in cutscenes to kick Chester up thirty or forty levels after you get him back. Oh, and he gets actual techniques in those versions, including the ultimate arrow Toryuu (Dragon Slayer) - in the original, he's nothing but brute support.
  • A particularly frustrating one occurs in Tales of Symphonia 2 where members of the previous game are playable, but they don't gain exp leaving them at whatever level the plot says they should be at. In normal play this isn't too bad, the level they'll be forced into is enough to make them relevant in what ever plot fight you'll have... until newgame +. Now the old cast will be woefully behind the new characters with NO way to advance at all, it gets to the point that you're better off raising monsters to fight with you as they still level up. Let me say that again, if you raise a blob of slime along side your main cast, it will eventually completely overtake the previous heroes.
  • In the Playstation version of Persona, experience is awarded based on the game's arbitrary and seemingly random perception of the character's usefulness in that battle. In other words, the strong get more experience and become stronger, while the weak get less experience and continue to lag behind.
  • This VERY easily happens in the Playstation2 game Dark Cloud for numerous reasons. One is the fact that it uses a "No battle no experience" rule and the fact that the number of weapons available to some characters clearly indicates that the developers favour Toan and Ruby. Ungaga and Osmond are also obviously middle-tier characters in those games. They can actually be pretty good if a player invests time into building up to their ultimate weapons and uses their playstyles effectively. Xiao and poor Goro wind up the weakest characters because they can only attack once and they are so vulnerable to retaliation or attack when trying to line it up it's just not worth using them as a primary attacker.
  • Baldur's Gate 2:
    • One random party conversation involves your sister Imoen taunting lawful evil mage Edwin about the fact that "-everyone else is finding destinies and prophesies and generally surpassing you in every way." This eventually leads to a subversion—Edwin is by far the most powerful playable mage, with the possible exception of the protagonist himself.
    • Interestingly, the trope applies much more directly to Imoen herself, because she gets captured very early on. If the player does not rush immediately to her aid, the rest of the party will have surpassed her by the time she rejoins.
  • Mostly averted in Dragon Age due to Leaked Experience, but:
    • During the Fade sequence the Warden finds a whole host of stat-boost items that make him/her significantly more powerful, and Dog never really catches up to the humanoid party members after the first few hours of the game.
    • Sten is a subtler example. While his stats and talents are the same as any other warrior could have, he doesn't have a Specialization to start out with. Every other humanoid companion starts with one Specialization and learns another; Sten can only access the 'second' one. He falls behind Alistair and Oghren quite quickly.
    • Generally speaking, Warriors quickly become useless compared to Rogues and Mages. Rogues have hate control and massive evasion even without dexterity focused builds. Mages are even better tanks than Warriors and the best damage dealers.
  • After the first ranger mission in Breath Of Fire 2, your best buddy Bow gets falsely accused of burglary, and has to go into hiding while you search the world for the real perp. Once you finally get his name cleared and he can rejoin, he'll be far behind. He does require lower experience to level than other characters at this point to make up for it, but whether it is enough is debatable.
  • In Earthbound, Ness gains 200,000 EXP at once after a certain story event, along with the most powerful attack in the game and massive stat boosts, putting him miles ahead of everyone else. Since he was the only party member you had for the first two or three hours of the game, he probably already was to begin with. Even moreso, the place where he gains 200,000 EXP is his own "personal dungeon," where he's been fighting end-game monsters solo for about an hour. He was overpowered entering that world, but the combined experience from all of it makes him unbalanced. (Hilariously enough, it's Paula and the player, not Ness, who are instrumental to defeating the final boss, despite Ness's ridiculously high stats.)
    Poor Poo gets hit with this especially hard, since he joins rather late and slightly underlevelled, and he proceeds to leave for not one, but two dungeons to learn PSI Starstorm.
  • World of Warcraft examples:
    • Once played straight with Hunter pets; if you were wandering around as a level 60 Hunter and spotted a level 5 Beast you wanted, you had to raise it all the way from level 5. An update changed that though- now, if you happen to tame one that's substantially lower level than yourself, the tamed pet will automatically be raised to your level minus 5.
    • Didn't catch the attunement rush and are therefore still getting quests for your Karazhan key and grinding to get a Heroic Key? Too bad - you didn't catch the groups that were doing it and when your guild was doing it, so no key for you! Nobody wants to do the 5-man Lower blackrock Spire or Jailbreak? Sucks to be you then - I hear there's a group forming for those next week, maybe you can catch the group before they fill. During the Attunement rush (when one could find groups without having to sit around Shattrah for hours or bribe people to help), did you forget to log on and run instances to get reputation? Then no Heroic Key for You!! It wasn't as bad on higher-population servers as it was on wasteland servers, because people would often leave the Low-Pop servers to go to the higher-pop servers so they can actually get groups together or have a chance at joining guilds. So you need to be attuned to Onyxia to get into the guild, huh? Well without a guild, you can't get an Onyxia key because of the "Fuck you - I got mine, I'm not wasting my time running Jailbreak/Trial of Blood again if I don't benefit from it!"-mentality that resulted from content-burnout.
      More generically, when you started a new character, unless you had friends on the server it will end up being difficult to get groups for dungeons as you level up if most of the people on the server are focusing on endgame content. While it's possible to simply level up and get gear from questing, the best stuff is in dungeons and having stronger gear makes the leveling process smoother. (This is probably also why Blizzard reduced the amount of experience to level - because instances gave more experience than solo play, but without people running dungeons...you don't have that much of a choice) But then again though, we had the dungeon finder so this became a bit of a moot point in Wrath.
    • Although Blizzard learned a lot during Wrath of the Lich King, with the new expansion Cataclysm this trope may be raising it's head again. Dungeons now have minimum item level requirements to be able to use the dungeon finder feature. Heroics require an even higher level. This can lead to the situation where solo players cannot get items with high enough scores to run the very dungeons they need to run to get better items. With the dramatically increased difficulty of Heroic mode dungeons, and the already-infamously long wait for DPS spots, it also leads to a much higher amount of Rage Quitting if just one person messes up a mechanic, leaving the abandoned players screwed for another hour-long wait in the finder queue. Although this got a lot better around 2010, when queues started to get shorter and the hardcore people started to leave. Also, Heroic-level dungeons have gotten into a loop of people trying to run Heroics to get the gear they need to improve their survivability and damage output, but getting kicked from groups because their gear is bad, meaning they can't run the dungeons they need to run to get better gear.
    • Blizzard seems to have fixed this problem, at least in Mists of Pandaria, by introducing the Timeless Isle late into the expansion, a small zone littered with rare and elite enemies, dynamic events, and single-use treasure chests that have a chance of dropping armor tokens that can be turned into serviceable epic-quality gear with stats randomly generated based on your class and specialization, making it significantly easier to get freshly-capped alts geared enough to function in endgame content. The zone was overall considered a success, so it's likely similar mechanics will return in the upcoming Warlords of Draenor expansion.
  • Particularly bad in Fire Emblem. Often you won't even be able to easily train your low-level units late into the game because by then most enemies will be able to permanently kill them in one hit. Low-level units do at least get a form of Leaked Experience in that they gain more XP from a given enemy than a high-level unit would. You'll end up with either a small group of highly-experienced war gods or a Redshirt Army, and since you can only field so many units at a time, too often a lot of perfectly good units become permanent bench-warmers not long after you get them.
  • At least the first two Star Ocean games have this, as you can't take the main character out of the party, so if you're looking to have everyone else stay at an even level, he'll end up a dozen or more levels higher than everyone else.
  • In Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story there's a very brief section where Mario and Luigi get separated, and Luigi has to go find his brother. You can get into a couple of Luigi-only fights at this point, and be annoyingly stuck with the Bros' XP levels being out-of-sync for the rest of the game.
  • In Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga there's one point in Joke's End where you can split the bros up every time you visit. Since there are several segments where you play as just one brother (Guffawhaw Ruins, the repaired Koopa Cruiser, the following underground-Tee-hee Valley run, etc) it really helped even things out, since Luigi's stages tend to lack enemies, but Mario's don't... you can take advantage of this.
  • In Final Fantasy Tactics, you tend to pick your core party of 5 characters to level up in Chapter One, and while it's not impossible for everybody else to play catch-up, most people don't bother. Except for Cidolfus Orlandeau. Better known as Thunder God Cid. Better known as the guy who can (and will) replace your best special melee classes with his own class which combines the three best close combat classes into one giant stabbing machine. Coming free in the storyline, along with Excalibur helps. He Can'tCatchUp, because he's already so far infront he can solo the final boss from when you get him (if you are smart with abilities and equipment).
  • In Legend of Mana, your NPCs and Mons aren't always bright enough to pick up EXP gems, making them lag unless you have an accessory equipped that allows Leaked Experience; still, leveling NPCs isn't very useful since their levels reset on New Game+.
  • There's a part in Lost Odyssey that can leave a player stuck if they fall into this. Oh, you were only leveling up your main power group this entire time? Too bad! Now you have to use your underleveled characters for the rest of this disc.
  • In both the computer and tabletop version of Avalon Hill's Third Reich the French army never improves, ever. Normally this isn't a problem, because France usually falls to the Germans no later than Spring 1941. But sometimes, especially if the Axis player decides to go east and attack the Soviet Union first, France may hold out more or less indefinitely, in which case this trope becomes very noticeable. Every other country gets new units in 1942 or '43; even the Italians get a paratrooper and another 9-factor fleet. The French are stuck with mostly 2-3 infantry and a few 3-5 armor units, plus two 5-factor air fleets, and they never get a paratrooper. There's just not a lot they can do at that point. Although this may be more a case of Can'tAvoidFallingBehind.
  • This is very noticeable in Warhammer 40000: Rites of War.
    • As the game progresses, new units become available, but as units see action, they gain experience, which means that the units you've had since early in the game will have become very powerful by the time many of the more advanced units become available. This would not be a problem if there weren't a pretty tight cap on the number of units you can have in your army, which only increases very slowly. As a result, you are unlikely to ever use many of the units that become available later in the game. Sure, all else being equal, Warp Spiders might make a better tactical unit than Dire Avengers, but all else is not equal: level zero Warp Spiders are nowhere near as powerful as Dire Avenger Exarchs. To make matters worse, because highly experienced units are so effective in combat, you are likely to rely on them very heavily in combat, and guess what units earn experience from: combat. So even if you do bring in novice units into your army, they are likely to advance slowly if at all. This is an especially acute problem with support units, especially psykers. For most of the campaign, the only psykers available to you are Warlocks, who have one, purely defensive psyker ability, and very little in the way of combat ability otherwise, meaning that it is very hard for them to gain the experience to advance to a level where they gain actually useful psyker abilities. Eventually you get a Farseer, who is already at a high experience level and has all four Eldar psyker abilities; also, you eventually gain the ability to recruit Space Marine Librarians, who have access to all four of their psyker abilities at level zero. There is some good news in all this: reinforcements you gain on the battlefield, which mostly means friendly units you rescue from Tyranid encirclement, come in at high levels of experience. Also, in one of the later scenarios in the campaign, one can acquire an artifact called the Chalice of Khaine, which enables, among other abilities, the unit that possesses it to advance in experience very quickly. At that point it starts looking profitable to recruit a green unit per scenario, since that unit can end up at level ten in one scenario with the right usage. Lastly, the Avatar of Khaine is automatically at level ten when he becomes available, averting this trope.
    • There's also a literal example of this with the Imperial units you can recruit, especially Space Marines: they are generally noticeably slower than Eldar units, meaning that as your army advances on the battlefield, they tend to fall behind. Which means that Eldar units, at the front line, tend to see a lot of combat, and gain experience quickly, while the slower Imperial units, in the rear, see comparatively little combat, and gain little if any experience. If you do have highly experienced Imperial units, they still tend to fall to the rear and see less actual combat, so you get little if any use out of what are, on paper, highly experienced, powerful units. Again, this is a more serious problem with the Space Marines and Imperial Guard; the Adepta Sororitas tend to be quicker, and can generally keep up with the Eldar. Also, all aerial units tend to be very fast.
  • A similar problem occurs in another Warhammer 40,000 computer game, Dawn of War Two: you can control up to six squads of Blood Ravens space marines, but can only ever deploy four squads per mission. Since squads tend to gain most of their experience from going on missions, the squads you get early tend to have more experience, and be more powerful, than the other squads you get later. Because they are more powerful, you tend to rely on them more, using them in more missions, so their experience advantage continues to grow, making them even more powerful, thus inducing you to rely on them even more. The first expansion pack, Chaos Rising, helped ameliorate this problem by allowing more Leaked Experience and by requiring the use of certain squads in certain missions to avoid corruption.
  • Sword of the Stars:
    • Humans and Tarka are a downplayed version. Humans have only average research rate and chances for high-end techs, meaning that other races are likely to race ahead if given time. Tarka have strong cruisers but inferior dreadnoughts or leviathans and not much better chances than humans. Both need to seize the early game and win by mid or be outteched fast.
    • Hivers are a slightly better example. They have below-average research rate and move slowly strategically, meaning they capture territory slower than the rest. They rely on a Gradual Grinder strategy with their highly durable spacecraft - best in the game until the Loa were introduced - and their Portal Network giving incredible defensive potential.
    • The Zuul are the strongest example. They have the worst research rate and poor chances for most high-end techs, meaning that they will lose out if forced into a long slog where their early advantages have been lost and they fail to salvage those techs through combat.
  • In Shining Force III you spend the game picking up around 30 main characters but only 20 can be active in your army at any one time. So you pick your favourites and train them leaving everybody behind. Then right at the end of the game you're forced to split your team into going into two fights against strong opponents, and guess who the second team consists of? Yeah all the guys sitting on the bench. Thankfully you can take part in training levels to help them level up (although Pen starting at tier 1 level 1 is a real challenge) and you can hire a couple of mid-level mooks to bluff out your team and give them a bit of a fighting chance.
  • Shining Force II had a similar problem regarding the way you could exploit the leveling system. Characters in the game could be promoted to a more powerful class at level 20. However, you could wait until level 40 before promoting your characters, making them far more powerful as a Level 1 promoted class than they would be if you'd promoted them at Level 20 (While still getting EXP as a Level 1 character). Unfortunately, in the second half of the game, you start picking up units who are already promoted, with stats reflecting a Level 20 promotion. This puts the new characters at such a disadvantage that it's not even worth trying to level them up.
  • Super Robot Wars games are a bit more forgiving on this front than Fire Emblem, but this trope is still there: pilots that leave your party always catch up to your average level when they return. However, someone who never leaves the party may languish twenty levels behind your main guys until he or she is suddenly a Required Party Member who must be protected or, worse, a Required Party Member who sorties solo for several turns.
  • Similarly to Super Robot Wars, the Mech Commander video games start commanders with a core cadre of pilots. As only those pilots who go into battles gain experience, some players spread around the experience so that pilots can level up more or less equally. However, the more experience a pilot gains, the higher their rank becomes. In the first game, this means that they are more proficient at using heavier chassis, meaning that they can use its weapons, equipment, and defenses to a greater extent. In the second game, this manifests as new skills you can teach a pilot who levels up. Therefore it is usually in a commander's best interest to pick a few pilots (mostly any regulars and a few promising rookies) and stick with them for the bulk of the game. As it's possible to lose pilots through sheer bad luck or poor strategic choices, new pilots are made available later on in both games through various fashions, but these pilots are usually have lower skill ratings even if they have similar ranks to the player's current pilots. The first game at least made all pilots more or less similar aside from their skill levels, but in the second game, where pilots are more specialized, later-game recruits and many, many green pilots generally won't see use and will fall behind. This is especially painful if more experienced pilots are lost and the player has to go into the endgame with underleveled green pilots with few or no skills.
  • This can be a major problem in Radiant Historia. While characters who are traveling with you but not in your active party get Leaked Experience, characters who aren't available at the time don't. The biggest offender is Rosch, who is in the rather unfortunate position of a) only really being available in one timeline and b) joining the party at a relatively low level, so he doesn't have much of a head start.
  • This also becomes problematic in Nippon Ichi games. The main game can be brute-forced through with a core party of about a dozen or so characters (which is, coincidentally, about where the Arbirtary Headcount Limit is), usually with your protagonist(s) having the lion's share of attack power, but if you want to make any headway into the post game you'll have to juggle a much larger stable of classes and monsters, resulting in quite a bit of Level Grinding.
  • Might and Magic VIII combines an arbitrary headcount limit with no Leaked Experience and permanent stat boni mainly something one can get in dungeons. Most of the end-game recruits are powerful enough in their own right to be valid choices, but that fellow you've left in the inn since you got to the second city?
  • Occasionally an issue in The Old Republic. Companions usually join the player at the end of a particular planet's story arc. After the first couple, the game begins offering two planets to do in the story arc with no particular order required (though usually one is slightly lower-level then the other). Since the player could theoretically get either companion first they each tend to be at about the same gear level meaning that the second one obtained of the two will seem underpowered. While gear is resonably easy to come by, it can be a more pressing issue for droids like M1-4X and SCORPIO, who use less-common droid parts instead.
  • Ramus in Lunar: Silver Star Story is more Can't Keep Ahead than Can't Catch Up. At the very beginning of the game, he's the strongest member of the party. But Alex and Luna upgrade all of their stats when they level up, and Ramus only upgrades his total HP (And he even stops doing that after a while). As a result of this, by the time he leaves the party (About 2-3 hours later if you're not in a rush) he's dropped to being the weakest member.
  • This issue has occurred in every Ratchet & Clank title since the advent of upgrading weapons and health via XP gained from killed enemies. However, while the health increases throughout almost the entire game, the weapons do not, and so weapons bought early in the game aren't able to deal enough damage to enemies to be considered using by the end. The only game that has come close to avoiding this issue is Ratchet: Deadlocked as its weapons upgrade to V10 rather than V5 in a game that is shorter overall than other titles, and Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One, but only because it doesn't use the XP system to keep things fair between players.
  • Agarest Senki tries to prevent this with "player points" that can be spent to improve characters in much the same way as the points gained in levelling do. Which is a good thing since you carry characters from successive generations into combat. A character unused since generation one would be twenty levels behind by the time generation two rolls around. And then thirty odd, forty odd and so forth until generation 5. A character so levelled might be given stellar stats but still has the durability of wet tissue paper.
  • Inevitable in Radiata Stories. There are 177 playable characters and they will only receive experience if they're in your party. Because of Character Tiers, it's likely that players will only use maybe a dozen or so characters throughout the main storyline.
  • This is what Cryptic wanted to avoid by modifying the Reputation System in Star Trek Online's Season 9 as they felt that players that were steamrolling through events weren't giving newer players a fair shake of the stick. Of course, this lead to Fan Dumb rearing its head as older players cried out that they should be able to be able to do so and that the new players should just keep playing instead of whining.

    Webcomics 
  • In Dubious Company, Lieutenant Paladin Leeroy Perkins, who wants to prove himself as the best at something, anything, is cursed to be Number Two at everything. He's a good fighter, but not as good as Tiren. He's smart, but not as smart as Sal. He's skilled, but not as skilled as Walter. He's second-grade Bishounen compared to Elly. And unbeknownst to him was runner-up to Sal as The Chosen One. God flipped a coin.
  • This is a major theme in Tower of God; one Ranker even gives a speech about it near the beginning, saying that "those who are not worthy should fuck off." Many rankers are overshadowed by Baam, Androssi, Koon, Anak, Laure, Rak and Hatsu (amongst others), and Ho tries to kill Lahel to stop Baam from climbing the Tower, as he is a fellow Wave Manipulator and therefore a direct rival. When Baam rescues her and proves that he is indeed a genius, Ho loses all hope to reach the top, and drowns his sorrow with suicide. But it's also subverted; some people, like Ship Leesoo, manage to be useful through their intelligence or personality even without any significant personal power.
  • In the later parts of Homestuck, most of the trolls slip further and further behind everyone else, since every single human character reaches the God Tiers and gains world-altering cosmic powers, while most of the trolls don't. Karkat stands out in particular, to the point where he openly complains about it.

    Web Original 
  • Gavin Free in Achievement Hunter's Let's Play Minecraft series is this trope. The series is over 100 episodes long and Gavin's only won the Tower of Pimps three times. This is due to three reasons: he's a troll, he tends to be quite incompetent at times and, if he's close to winning, everyone else will drop what they're doing and kill Gavin's character just so he doesn't win. His first and third victories, in "Hunger Games" and "Mad King Ryan", was because he was able to get to the person he needed to kill and kill them one-on-one. The second one, "Shopping List", could be described as Karmic Victory as Gavin ended up winning after Ryan drowned him and nearly irrevocably set him back.

    Western Animation 
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender : Poor Sokka, though he's The Smart Guy, becomes a swordsman when he notices this trope, and has a lot of non-combat skills, is much less useful in direct fights against people with elemental powers. Because while Long Feng can kill someone with blunt force, you can't go chopping off heads on a kids show. However he did mess up Sparky Sparky Boom Man. But, in general, he works best in group vs. group scenarios.
  • Korra pulls far ahead of the members of Team Avatar in Legend Of Korra: she's a better Earthbender than Bolin, a better Firebender than Mako, and a better hand to hand combatant than Asami. Mako at least can do Lightning Bending which Korra can't, but Bolin doesn't have any secondary Earthbending skill (Metalbending or otherwise). And now she's surpassing Tenzin's Airbending children including the prodigy Jinora, and even her own master Tenzin is surpassed by her since she can finally calm down dark spirits and enter the Spirit World, which he can't do at all despite all his studying and work.
  • Transformers: Beast Wars:
    • On the Maximal side this is avoided: Despite not going TransMetal or getting a shiny new upgrade like the better half of his teammates, Rhinox still managed to hold his own in most fights. Really, everyone else caught up to Rhinox. Dinobot also manages to be extremely Bad Ass despite no upgrades, going so far as to take on the entire Predacon team by himself. And Optimal Optimus? Not only does he miss Chew Toy Waspinator, he gets shot down by him.
    • The Predacons, on the other hand, play it straight. Inferno was dominant when he was introduced in Season 1 and Quickstrike, while never as much of a threat as Inferno, was reasonably well powered when he came in at the start of Season 2. Neither were given upgrades while the Predacon team got fairly significant upgrades all around. And then we have Waspinator - started as the weakest Predacon and *never* got an upgrade But you gotta' give him points for sheer endurance.
  • In Dragon Booster, Artha became so powerful towards the end that the regular antagonist, Moordryd, got an upgrade early in the third season. Even so, he was left in the dust in terms of power. Artha's teammates didn't even get upgrades, instead sitting around watching Artha and Moordryd shoot magical beams at each other for much of the third season.
  • Literal example: in Young Justice Invasion Wally decided to retire as Kid Flash, feeling that he can't be as fast as Barry Allen the current Flash, and felt that he would just slow him down (unlike the comics, where his speed eventually increased and even surpassed Barry's due to his mastery over the Speed Force). This is made even worse when Barry's grandson Bart Allen comes from the future and proves to be faster than Wally despite being much younger. This leads to Wally's death in the series finale.
  • Poor Scootaloo from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is this in regards to flying, as every other pegasus her age has already figured it out. It has yet to be determined whether she's just a late bloomer or actually handicapped.

    Real Life 
  • Every so often, sports produce a case of Can't Catch Up. Sometimes one of a pair of rivals will steadily fall behind another. Other times, a team (or even family!) will produce a slew of talented competitors and one competent one who can never seem to live up to his comrades. This is usually very disheartening for athletes and fans alike. Very common in sports that don't use some sort of controlled draft. Successful teams have more money and/or prestige which allows them to attract better players which brings them more success.
  • Also common in music. For example, One Direction and The Wanted were equal rivals when the two groups were only popular in the UK. Then, One Direction had a meteoric rise to international popularity whereas The Wanted got rejected by other countries in less than half a year and were starting to fade away in the UK itself.
  • The Matthew Effect. Named for a line in the bible which says that those that have will be given more, but those that don't won't even be given any. The sports example? Many people noticed that if you're born past June, you're pretty much screwed since they won't let you on the team for one more year. And one year, unfortunately, makes a LOT of difference, as those accepted keep getting better training, while those that didn't aren't even allowed the next year.


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