Oftentimes, games will try to prevent the notion of Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards from seeping into their games. Every character or character class is as valuable as another, or must rely upon one another for game balance purposes.
Crutch characters, however, are player characters (typically available early on) who start out powerful enough to carry your party to victory on their own, but who Can't Catch Up with the increased powers of newer enemies or their fellow characters, or because they simply leave the party at some point (possibly because they are The Mole), or they arekilled, forcing the player to somehow come up with a replacement. Worse, without Leaked Experience, the crutch may actually cripple your party if you lean on them too heavily - if they leave, or if their diminishing returns make their levels empty, then you've functionally wasted experience points that could have made other characters powerful.
There are six reasons for this trope occurring:
The character simply has bad stat growth; they don't gain as much from leveling up as the other characters do.
Thus, they are like a crutch - you can lean on them to overcome a weakness early on, but eventually, the game will kick the crutch out from under you, and your other characters must have learned to stand on your own two feet by that time, or you are doomed to fail.
The Crutch Character serves two purposes — his strength prevents the player from being overwhelmed in the early stages of the game when he's still learning the rules, and he provides a useful object lesson. Most novices, given a powerful unit, will come to overly rely on him, and won't raise their other units enough, leaving those characters weak and unable to defend themselves. By quickly obsoleting or otherwise removing the Crutch Character (or perhaps making the Crutch's later function different), the designers deter this strategy; in other words, it's a way of attacking the Unstable Equilibrium. Of course, if the designers forget to deter this strategy, you have a One Man Party.
Usually, a Crutch Character will be a protector or bodyguard of some kind. Of course, there are exceptions.
Characters who are the Jack may often fall into this category, particularly in non MMORPG games.
All of the above notwithstanding, some players may simply not give a rat's behind about Character Tiers and continue using the Crutch Character throughout the game, power levels be damned.
A specific form of The Ace. See also Overrated And Underleveled, Skill Gate Character, and Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards. Contrast with Magikarp Power and One Man Party. This character often acts as the EXP version of So Long, and Thanks for All the Gear.
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Mordecai characters in Borderlands who focus on Bloodwing with leveling up. Early on during the game, Bloodwing can one hit kill enemies left and right, turn boss battles into a joke. Once you get to the higher levels though, Bloodwing barely scratches the majority of the enemies you face. Luckily, Borderlands allows you to respec your abilities on a whim, so Bloodwing-spec hunters aren't screwed once they get to the lategame.
Likewise Bricks who go into maxing out Brawler/Tank trees with the right cooldowns & class mods (Having a five second cooldown on your minute default skill? Sure why not). Extremely potent in the first playthrough, arguably to the point of being a Game Breaker, but because of how the game scales Berserk damage, it skill becomes decreasingly useful throughout the second playthrough prompting a lot of Bricks to respec into the Blaster/Tank trees and use Berserk for healing.
In Borderlands 2, a few characters have trees that fall into this.
Salvador's Brawn tree. His action skill makes him dual-wield, regenerate ammo, reduce damage, and heal 50% of his total health. Brawn increases his survivability. However, most of these skills are based on either health regeneration (which doesn't grow near as fast as enemy damage) or only work while Gunzerking (which has a time limit). By the time you get to True Vault Hunter Mode, most enemies will be able to kill in 2-5 hits, while every regen ability at once will take well over ten seconds to restore full health. In contrast, many high-level offensive builds will have their skills all working together to boost damage exponentially, letting you kill almost everything before it gets a hit it.
Gaige's "Best Friends Forever" skill tree focuses on powering up her Deathtrap similar to Mordecai's Bloodwing in the first game. The tree also contains skills like "Close enough" which gives missed bullets a chance to ricochet back to the enemy, making aiming easier for beginners, but also for people who enjoy using Anarchy, which increases power at the expense of accuracy.
Axton's Gunpowder tree. Nuke is insanely powerful in normal mode, does decent damage in true vault hunter mode, and barely tickles the enemies in ultimate vault hunter mode. Similarly, Double Up becomes 100% useless once you can Slag regularly from other sources.
Hack and Slash
The Amazon in the Capcom arcade game Magic Sword. She can hit max level (8) before the first main boss, and her crossbow can clean up virtually anything. But it's weak compared to other allies on similar levels. In fact, she ends up unavailable through the last third of the game (unless another player joins in). The Knight, on the other hand, is the other way around.
Unicorn Gundam from Dynasty Warriors Gundam 3. Available as soon as Banagher Links become playable, this Mobile Suit isn't anything special while on his standard mode. However, once it uses a SP attack, it changes into Destroy Mode, that makes it extremely fast, with a much longer range and a small attack bonus. Once it gets into Destroy Mode, his speed and range makes it possible to destroy several enemies at once, wich will raise its SP gauge very quickly and allows the player to enter in Destroy Mode again and again, in a infinite cycle. However, by abusing it the player will neglect developing other suits that are mandatory in other missions. Long story short, the player will have to stop and grind for a while every time he stumbles with a harder mission in wich he isn't allowed to use the Unicorn Gundam.
Prince Rurik of Guild Wars escorts the party of PCs and, if so desired, NPC henchmen on a number of missions. Given that he's level 10 and never changes that, he's quite useful when your character is level three and, well, peters off after that. Then, quite naturally, he bites the dust. Who didn't see that one coming?
Heroes, introduced in Nightfall and further in Eye of the North, act as customisable henchmen and veritable Crutch Characters. Each hero fills out a single party slot, but have access to any skills that your account, rather than character, has unlocked. For Elonan characters (characters that start in the Nightfall campaign), Nightfall heroes are generally introduced at comparative levels to yours, but Eye of the North heroes are all max level, and you can get them at a level as low as 10 (half the level cap). Heroes are useful throughout the Prophecies campaign, as the henchmen available to you only hit the level cap near enough three-fourths of the way through the game.
Shin Megami Tensei Imagine Online gives the player a Wounded Cerberus at the end of the tutorial. It is a strong demon with good stats and a respectable array of magic, including Recarm, Media and Fire Breath. However, it cannot be fused, gains experience 10 times slower than normal, and is removed from the player's party not after long.
Cerberus is well-known throughout the series for joining the player (usually temporarily for an upcoming boss fight, but can rejoin later) in flagrant disregard of the level restrictions.
The Knights of Cygnus in Maplestory used to be like this. They are basically the five normal classes, except you could not choose the second job and they have slightly different skills. They gained more points for their stats when leveling up, but their level capped at 120 instead of 200 like the other classes. Later Subverted when you reached level 120 and could restart as an Ultimate Adventurer, a stronger version of the regular Adventurer classes (Although they have a few disadvantages compared to them). More recently, Cygnus characters were changed to have a normal progression and the same level cap as everyone else.
Commander Video in Super Meat Boy has a floatjump that allows horizontal precision and will make the first two worlds much easier. However, he doesn't have much speed or jumping height, so in later worlds, beating levels with him can sometimes be impossible.
Zero in Mega Man X3. At the start of the game, X has a small health bar and no weapons or upgrades, while Zero is a beast with a large health bar and the ability to fire two charged shots at once, along with a Laser Blade that's a One-Hit Kill on most non-boss enemies. However, Zero only has one life, and he cannot be called on more than once per stage (and he can't play any more than one-third of any given level since he cannot be taken through boss or mini-boss doors). He's mostly intended to get through trouble spots until X acquires more upgrades; fully powered-up, X outshines Zero in every way (though it's still possible to get Zero's sword as well, even though the method for doing so is a bit of a Guide Dang It).
Since the introduction of upgrading weapons and health in Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando, the starting weapons almost always fall into this, with the first two weapons typically being a semi-automatic laser pistol and a bomb lobber. As they are early weapons they upgrade fairly quickly, but by the middle of the game the enemies have so much health that they become impractical to use (in fact the Bouncer was a deliberate attempt by the developers to replace the Mini-Nuke in terms of function). Because the Lancer was often the first weapon this happened to, some fans have taken to calling this affliction Lancer Syndrome.
Genzoh Wakabayashi in the Game Boy's Captain Tsubasa VS. The boy has about twice goalkeeping skills Morisaki, your default GK, has, and can probably catch anything thrown at time. Problem: If you use him, he injures his leg and can't be used again for sometimes. This can be painful if you don't reserve him until you play Meiwa.
Same applied with Sega CD's version. This time, his injury is scripted, so he's out even if you don't use him. Misaki also counts thanks to his Golden Comibination with Tsubasa, which allowing you to zip through opponent's defense within a minute. Both of them are gone for good after the half of the game.
Endou Mamoru, the protagonist of Inazuma Eleven and its sequels, is very prone to this. Being the starting Goal Keeper of your team, he is capable of stopping almost every special shot early on, and will usually block or push normal shots throughout the game almost effortlessly (especially noticeable in the random battles occurring between matches). It's pretty much possible to win almost all of the games keeping him as the main goalie, but the big problems begin during the end-game bosses as well as the subsequent "Challenge Mode" competitions: not only he levels up immensely slowlier than his fellow team mates due to his initial strength, thus crippling his stats, his final special catches consume so much TP that you're forced to put him out of HIS VERY OWN TEAM.
This is also a cause of him being one of the least used goalies in multiplayer matches, as skilled players know how to easily counter him using his elemental weakness (fire beats mountain), thus choosing either an end-game keeper or Tachimukai (the secondary keeper).
To some extent, almost all of the starting members have to be interchanged with more powerful scouted players (or even opponent's). The only exception probably lies in the Forwards.
Almost every sport game with some version of team-creation leagues falls victim to doing this. On the one hand, big sports names can and WILL still beat almost every other weaker team in normal matches. On the other, the fact that you can build up your team using existing players will usually end up with it being overpowered compared to the once mighty big names. Particularly poignant in games such as Pro Evolution Soccer.
In Diddy Kong Racing, Tiptup and especially Pipsy are the go-to characters for easy handling, and a lot of people stick to them to steamroll early races in favor of learning to use other characters properly. However, they have terrible top speed, and sooner or later they end up having to work just as hard, if not even more so for their victories by virtue of everyone else just being faster. This is the source of many a complaint about the game's suddendifficulty.
The Warcraft IIIExpansion PackThe Frozen Throne's Undead campaign featured King Arthas growing weaker due to a rift in his master's lair, the frozen throne. This downgrading manifests in a reduction of Arthas's level by 1 per mission, but adding a second hero halfway through the campaign. The last mission finally restored Arthas's power completely, so you had two max-level heroes for the final assault. (You needed them, as your opponent, naturally, had three. Yes, three.)
This happens on at least two annoying occasions in Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich: in the last third of the game, Alchemiss (who became a much more useful character in this game than in the original) turns into Dark Phoenix Entropy and becomes the new Big Bad, making all the time spent leveling her up suddenly useless. More unforgivable is the fact that Entropy starts erasing other members of your party from existence almost without warning.. Though the game can still be completed fairly easily even if you spent time on these characters, it's still a bit annoying.
Captain Antilles (not Wedge, the other Antilles) in Empire at War shows up during the first mission in the Alliance campaign and is quite powerful (although all hero units capable of combat are) but both leave once the player has gotten a good start and controls nearly half the galaxy. Antilles also leaves just before the player can build Capital Ships.
The PC (aka Opinion Leader) himself in the original Ogre Battle. Depending on Alignment, he can start with a powerful elemental attack that hits the entire enemy party (Ice Cloud, Thunder or Phantom), and above average stats. So when your forces are only basic fighters and amazons, he great. But later in the game, when Warlocks, Devils, Angels and Princesses start popping up with the ability to use the same spells multiple times per battle, the Opinion Leader starts to fall behind. Add that his stats influence his ability to recruit characters and learning when to use the Opinion Leader becomes an art.
Add to that the fact that any enemies killed by Tarot Cards give their xp to the Opinion Leader (just him, not his entire unit) instead of the unit actually engaged, and it becomes very easy later in the game for the OL to greatly outlevel the campaign enemies. The problem? Fighting lower level enemies will destroy his alignment rating, making it impossible to recruit key characters or get good endings. For this reason a lot of players probably just keep him parked on the player capital in later campaigns and let the other units do the dirty work.
Timur for the Timurids in Europa Universalis III. A fantastic ruler and general...who, at the earliest start, is going to die of old age anytime now.
The Total War series will often combine this with A Taste of Power at the start of the game by giving a faction a unit far stronger than what they'd be able to recruit themselves at that point in the game. For example, in Rome: Total War, The Julii Romans will start with a unit of Triarii spearmen and the Greek Cities a unit of Spartan hoplites. Both units are at least two full tiers above what those factions would actually be able to recruit themselves for many in-game years. These units could almost single-handedly cut a swath through the low tier rabble the various "Rebel" faction neighbors have at that point, but any attrition suffered by the elite unit will hurt as the player will not be able to replenish the unit or recruit more for quite some time.
Pets in NetHack. Your starting puppy or kitten is more powerful than all but a few roles in the very early game, and unlike you, it doesn't attract more powerful monsters when it levels up. As you proceed through the game, you can create or acquire better pets, but for most characters, there comes a point where pets in general cease to be much use; they're either too slow to keep up with you, too weak to attack the few monsters that still pose a credible threat, or too vulnerable to incoming rays and dungeon hazards. It doesn't help that NetHack's pet AI isn't nearly as well-designed as most other aspects of the game.
The Hokage and the Dragon from Rogue Legacy. The Hokage is extremely strong early on due to his base damage, but due to the fact that he cannot critically strike, it makes him fall off, as only 1/2 of the stats you can buy to increase your damage. This becomes especially noticeable on New Game+, as the assassin's critical hit rate continues to creep upwards, eventually allowing him to deal more damage while maintaining a more broadly useful special ability. The dragon gets an insane mobility, but using runes you can make any character fly, and the other two spellcasters in the game are just so much better than him. The dragon remains useful as a boss hunter, though - because you don't have to spend runes on other things, the dragon can focus on enhancing its already insane mobility, making it easy to avoid the bosses' attacks and use hit-and-run tactics that never allow the boss to hit back.
The secret character Sgt. Gunny in Sword of the Stars: The Pit: Gold Edition. He has higher base stats than the Marine but lower stat growth and can't use advanced armour without penalties.
The Soul of Rebirth mode in the remakes absolutely mutilates this trope to the point that it makes it Nintendo Hard. At the beginning, you end up stuck with Minwu and Scott on their own against waves of enemies that one half are on equal status with them, and the other half is likely to kill you in two to three turns. With a very good chance that Minwu isn't equipped with anything decent (seeing as he left the party early on), Scott will be forced to act as a sub-par attacking crutch all the time while Minwu spams healing. Then when Josef comes along, there's far too much of a chance that he'll be weaker than even Minwu, and though he'll probably have slightly better offensive capabilities, the fact that he'll be as poorly-equipped as Minwu is along with most likely not having any spells just makes him something of a Load. Then you'll have to survive four floors of overpowered enemies and a dwindling amount of HP and MP that can only be recovered through the 4 Ethers and sole Elixir that you start with, until you find Ricard, who, if you're smart, had been trained well and exhaustively over the lengthy period of time that he was in your party in the main game. His contribution alone should be enough to carry you through to the point where you can finally heal and restock safely.
Tellah in Final Fantasy IV is an old sage with both black and white magic. He is overleveled for the cave at which he is first available, being able to allow himself and his allies to live off of the enemies with ease using Cura and Osmose. He is available again later on, but at this point you'll have caught up to him in power, until he gets his memories back and remembers all the top-tier magic he forgot before. Granted, his stats suck so those spells aren't as impressive as they could be, but he still gets access to them and can get good usage out of them.
Fusoya of the same game is in a similar boat. He might not be a pure Crutch Character in that he isn't obtained until very late in the game and your party is fine without him, but he's very similar to Tellah, ability-wise. And rather than having some stats increase while others decrease when he levels up, Fusoya's stats never change at all.
The sequel's protagonist is, well, a particularly weak weakling at the start. The game compensates by giving you Biggs and Wedge then The Hooded Man, who are much better, to assist.
Later in the game you get Golbez for the final tale, who much like Tellah and Fusoya gets access to high-level magic long before your other party members do, and gets around 1500-2000 more HP than them to boot.
The Guardian Forces (GFs) in Final Fantasy VIII are powerful summon monsters that you can call at any time to attack all the enemies on screen. The best part: calling a GF doesn't cost anything (except a little time) and you can call them as many times as you want. You can easily go though 99% of the game by having your GFs destroy everything in your path. But, this strategy backfires when you have to fight Adel because Adel takes Rinoa hostage and attacking all the enemies on the screen will result in a game over. In addition, trying to use your GFs in the final boss fight will get the GF killed. So, if you haven't taken the time to use the junction system by the end of the game you're screwed.
Dragon Quest V has a few. In the first generation, Pankraz, the hero's father, is easily the strongest party members throughout that period of the game, though he cannot be controlled, and he is only with you in certain parts. In the second generation, when you are first able to obtain monsters, the Rotten Apple is easily the strongest available, with higher stats than even the hero, but it caps at level 20 (though it it still fairly strong for a while longer). A less extreme example is the Slime Knight; with solid stats, great equipment options, and decent healing, is like having a second hero... but by the end of the second generation, it has low stats compared to the Mons available in the area, and has learned all of its special skills... not to mentioned a better 'second hero' becomes available soon afterwards...
The Pokémon games frequently feature a handful of common Pokémon, usually bugs (as in insects, not programming errors), that evolve into their final forms at relatively early levels (for example, Butterfree and Beedrill, both of which can be acquired at level 10). These Pokémon are useful in the early going, but most of them quickly become obsolete as more and better Pokémon become available (though some Bug-types remain powerful at least until 1/2 or 2/3 of the way through the game).
Fortunately Pokémon Black and Whiteaverts this. The two early bugs, Leavanny and Scolipede, are very good with high Attack and Speed, good move pools and okay typing (Bug/Grass and Bug/Poison). Leavanny especially is good if you chose Tepig, since it is strong against both Oshawatt and Snivy.
Pokémon also has a Crutch Move — Dragon Rage, introduced in the first generation, always hits for exactly 40 Hit Points. It takes surprisingly little time for that to become a drop in the bucket. There's also SonicBoom, which hits for half as much and (in a later revision) starts to adapt to the Elemental Rock-Paper-Scissors rules of the game. Even worse when you consider that very few Pokémon actually learn it until AFTER the point where it stops being really useful. It has its uses, but for the most part it's just not worth it.
The move can be bred onto low-level Dragon-types, such as Dratini. Pokémon Crystal's Battle Tower had battle levels as far down as level 10. How many Pokémon have significantly more than 40 HP at level 10? (The Pokémon Blissey, with the highest potential for HP in the game, can have up to 80 HP at that level.)
Another Crutch Move comes in the form of Bullet Seed in Gen III. You could get the TM for it right before the Rock-type Gym. You could put it on Treecko or Shroomish to sweep through said Gym and some of the subsequent hikers on the next route, but its low base power means it will eventually be replaced.
Geodude is particularly useful in early stages of the game despite being an infamous ComMon. It has high Attack and Defense and learns Rock and Ground-type moves, both of which are useful offensive types. Rock is especially useful early in the game due to the plentiful amount of Flying and Bug type Pokémon, as well as it's resistance to the Normal-Type Tackles and Quick Attacks thrown around. But not long into the game, it's usefulness begins to wear off. Eventually, its low HP, terrible Special Defense and Speed, and numerous weaknesses become big handicaps. Most glaring being the Water-Types.
However, Rock and Ground are still good offensive types, so either you'll win or lose easily.
Another good example would be the elemental monkeys in Pokémon Black and White. You get the one that your starter is super effective against, because the first Gym leader uses the monkey super effective against your starter. However, they learn very little in the way of decent moves until level 22, and while you get the stones early enough to evolve them, you'll miss out on the good moves, and by that point you'll find Pokémon of the Fire/Water/Grass types that already have good moves and good stats without evolving.
It's completely possible to turn your starter into a crutch character if you don't balance out your team. How many kids went through Pokémon Red and Blue with their awesomely powerful Charizard, got it to Level 65 or higher, and finished most of the game, only to find Victory Road ahead of them? One thing that causes this is the lack of variety and lack of really good Pokemon early on in the game. The areas around the player's hometown often consist mostly of grass and bug, and sometimes normal type Pokemon. Said Pokemon usually are not strong and don't usually have very good move sets, leading a lot of players to rely heavily on their starters. That, and the fact that the starter is the first Pokemon the player obtains, means that the starter is usually ahead in level, leading the player to use it more, so it levels up more, so the player uses it more, and so on.
Gen V just may have done this with the Starters themselves. In Generations past it was common practice to keep a starter around, not only because of loyalty, but because usually, wild Pokémon of it's same type are uncommon or outclassed by the starter. This all changed with the advent of Gen V. With the sheer rise in power and impressiveness of the wild Pokémon in Unova, it makes the Starters look mediocre by comparison.
This is largely the domino effect of TMs no longer being consumable. To elaborate: In order to compensate for the now infinitely reusable skill machines, many of the Unova Pokémon were designed with a severely limited movepool compared to other generations. Most of them will only learn moves from their own typings, plus Normal. This makes dual type Pokémon much more valuable than single types, even when they have historically common typings such as Grass/Poison. Thus the Grass starter is outclassed even by Pokémon that can be acquired very early in the game. The Water starter has decent coverage, but still can fall into this trope later on. The Fire starter, who eventually gains Fighting, is somewhat more useful, but still easily replaced by other Pokémon without any particular difficulty.
The Pikachu in Pokémon Red and Blue. Catchable in the first dungeon area, its typing and stats make it great early on (since Com Mons like Zubat and Pidgey are weak to Electricity, and it's almost necessary against Misty is you chose Charmander). However, its evolved form Raichu is pretty mediocre by endgame. This is even more true in Pokemon Yellow, where it’s your starter Pokemon.It would start as your best Pokémon and being a Glass Cannon, it would hit like a truck. But the fact that it couldn't evolve (the game prevents you from giving it a Thunder Stone) means that it would fall behind as your other Pokémon evolve and become stronger.
Nidoking and Nidoqueen are so powerful when you can first obtain them as to fall into Disc One Nuke territory; they can be gained as early as Level 16 and have a Base Stat Total of 495 (compare to the 405 of Charmeleon, who's one of the stronger ones obtainable at that level). Their Poison/Ground typing also gives them an advantage over three of the first four gyms in Kanto. As the game goes on, though, their Jack of All Stats nature, weaknesses to Ice, Water, Ground, and Psychic, and the rest of your team evolving as well causes them to fall behind. They're not useless, largely due to a truly massive movepool, but they don't sweep whole gyms anymore.
Although they tend to be really popular in their respective games, the starter pokemon are general this as well. They tend to have a wide enough moveset to carry you through the ggame's campaign, but competively speaking, only a handful of them are actually viable enough to be used. Most end up being overshadowed by better alternatives.
The Goddess Freya starts out as both a crutch and as an in-game guide for Lenneth in the original Valkyrie Profile, but it's more of a subversion - it is the very first and easiest dungeon in the game that was meant to serve as a tutorial ground for first-time players. On Hard mode, this is painfully averted when Lenneth recruits Einerjar for her party; every single one recruited starts out at Level 1, regardless of what chapter you obtained them in (there is one she can only find in Chapter 8, the very last chapter, for example.). There are items that can raise their level faster, but it's still a nuisance.
Lunar: Eternal Blue has an interesting twist on this — one of the main characters, Lucia, is a temporary Crutch Character. She starts out ridiculously strong, but the villain soon depowers her to the same level as the rest of the characters.
Ramus could be seen as a sort of variant of this trope. At the start of the game Ramus is nearly equal to Alex in fighting skill, with his extra HP perhaps just barely making him stronger. Still, even at his best he is really only equal to the other characters in strength. As the game progresses his strength starts to degrade as his stat growth plummets as he levels up. He goes from a decent front line fighter with 2 attacks to being moved to the back row (as his low defense making him too vulnerable up front) with a bow and only one shot per turn. by the time he leaves the party he gains only a few HP each level and is so weak compared to the other team mates that he barely manages to be more of an asset then a liability in combat.
Beyond The Beyond has super-knight Samson and his weak charge, Prince Edgar. Soon, Samson takes a cursed scarf to the face and becomes de-powered to near-uselessness, due to his inherent unreliability whenever you give him a combat command.
Tales of Phantasia has Chester, who starts out as a reasonable character early on, but is then lost due to the game's storyline. It is only much, MUCH later in the game when he becomes available again. His level does not rise in between, meaning that he will be sorely underpowered unless special effort is taken to level him up.
Tales of the Abyss has Jade Curtiss, who joins the group at nearly seven times the level of the first two characters and is promptly reduced to a level lower than theirs by a Level Draining trinket. This is even lampshaded when he gets back to level 50 "naturally" with an in-game "skit".
There's also Guest Star Party MemberAsch, who joins with a large variety of combat artes and magic spells. You can get him in your party a second time during an optional subquest, and although his level is scaled up he is still stuck with the same equipment he had during his first stint. This makes him drastically underpowered to the rest of the party, which (thematically) is the whole point.
Also, if playing on a New Game+, assuming you kept your capacity cores and artes, all the other characters are actually vastly much better than him, because in spite of his level being scaled, he doesn't have the bonus stats from capacity cores, and his artes aren't anything special, meaning that the parts of the game where he joins the party are much harder than the rest of the game.
Like Asch above, Richard from Tales of Graces joins the party with a good mix of physical and magical artes, several of which have HP-absorbing properties. He leaves for the rest of the main story, but the Updated Rerelease's extra story brings him back, giving him new artes and other upgrades to allow him to keep up with the much more fleshed-out main cast he'll be fighting alongside.
Tales of Xillia has Milla Maxwell who, while she starts off only one level higher than the other protagonist Jude Mathis, possesses inflated stats and four powerful spells based on the local elemental beings that all but one-hit any enemy she touches. Naturally, an event early on causes her to sacrifice this power, removing both the inflated stats and the spells. This actually becomes a plot point, as she must now come to terms with the things humans do in order to fight and stay alive; previously, she had relied almost entirely on said elemental beings for things like walking and eating.
The PC version (only) of the original The Bard's Tale has an undocumented cheat: pressing Z will summon a free Stone Elemental, taking up the party's NPC spot. The creature is many times the power of low-level characters, and better than those that can be summoned by even mid-level spells, but of course it never advances at all.
Several examples in the SaGa series, especially the Final Fantasy Legend games:
In FF Legend II, Mr. S and Mask pretty much solo the dungeons they're in. Heck, Mask practically solos the Wake-Up Call Boss. However, others like Hana and Lyn are sorta average and just plain awful respectively. Thankfully, Lyn isn't around that much.
In FF Legend III, none fit this trope better than Myron, your first fifth-slotter. Maybe it's because your stats are terrible at level 1, maybe it's because you made the mistake of changing into a monster when the monsters were meant to be destroyed by level 1's with terrible stats, or maybe it's because he's armed with a Battle Axe, but he seems like the only thing keeping you alive at first. Unfortunately, he's perpetually at level 5, and you have no idea where you're going, can go anywhere after dungeon 1 and random encounters every step of the way. Poor guy never knew what hit him. The other guests are around the same strength as your main party.
In SaGa Frontier, Red's immensely powerful Alkaiser form is, well, immensely powerful. There are very few non-boss enemies that can stand up to it, especially as the story progresses and more Alkaiser powers are unlocked. Unfortunately, transforming into Alkaiser voids any stat bonuses that Red would receive, and since those directly influence Alkaiser's stats, the result can easily become a very weak superhero. Not to mention the fact that Red can't transform if there are any humans around...
Phantasy Star IV does this twice; first with Alys, who acts as the Jegian until she makes a Heroic Sacrifice to save the main character (incidentally this happens around the same time where the rest of the party catches up with her level), and second with Rune, who initially debuts with spells that can wipe out anything you face with ease, and can hit most enemies for more damage with melee attacks than anyone else in your party. When Rune shows up later to re-join the party, he's still fairly powerful, but... not as much.
Orca in .hack starts at level 50, making the first dungeon a snap. Then he gets Data Drained. Eventually, you get him back, but he's still level 50, while your whole party is 90+.
The Death Knight in Beyond Divinity wears his own armor and thus is powerful in the beginning, but has to be safeguarded from harm as the game progresses if you want to keep him around because of his hilarious remarks and the fact that he's soul-forged with the protagonist, so if either dies, it's Game Over.
Ashlay in Star Ocean: First Departure starts out relatively powerful, but will easily be surpassed by characters like Ratix/Roddick by the end of the game, and so he's considered low-tier. Conversely, Cius/Cyuss might not seem that great at first, but can become a real powerhouse. As it so happens, Ashlay and Cius are mutually-exclusive Optional Party Members; you can't have both.
Likewise, if you're playing The Second Story / Second Evolution, Dias Flac is one hell of an invincible demon when he is first seen in battle (as enforced by the ensuing Hopeless Boss Fight). But if you're playing as Rena and he joins, most players agree he will be surpassed by Claude and maybe other characters as well, primarily due to his lack of multi-hit special moves, laggy normal attack, and the fact that the special ability granted by some weapons and accessories that gives normal attacks extra hits doesn't work on him either: this is even worse in the endgame where all special attacks fall under Awesome, but Impractical and everyone will be spamming their normal attacks which take no MP to use and hit a stupid amount of times.
Dias' regular attacks are lacking, but his Air Slash is so spamable, it can be used all the way until the end of the game, and is extremely useful in Fun City.
Speaking of Crutches, Claude himself starts with an energy weapon, which serves the same purpose until it gets a dose of Gameplay and Story Segregation and runs out of power. Since it One-shots everything to there, and uses no MP, it's totally understandable.
Tales of Symphonia has a borderline example in Kratos, who, despite being the same level as the protagonists, has excellent stat growth and skill in both damaging magic, healing and close-combat attacks (although not quite to the degree of the party specialists) that makes him invaluable. He leaves the party at the end of the Journey of Salvation and is replaced by Zelos, who has notably lower stats and knows none of the advanced attacks that Kratos did when he left.
That actually works on a couple levels. Zelos has better titles for stat growth (Gilgamesh in particular) and both moves and attacks faster than Kratos. At the end, Zelos is going to pass up Kratos in true Jagen fashion and be the better character... but of course, it's not like you had the option to use Kratos instead for most of the game.
In the original Tales of Destiny, Leon Magnus is one. He comes several levels ahead of the main characters, has similar moves to Stahn. But later on, Stahn will gain many variative moves, including some of Leon's. Then he betrays you.
Tales of Graces's Richard is a borderline case as a Guest Star Party Member for a good quarter of the game or so until the Future arc that is. He doesn't necessarily have better stats than everyone else, but he is the first member to have a decently powerful Blast Caliber unlocked the minute he is playable. He also has a variety of spells and physical moves, which is helpful because at that point, you only have two fighters. Of course, his usefulness dwindles away the minute you have other mages and unlock your own Blast Calibers, which is quite early in the game.
Sophie also counts. During the childhood arc, she has over twice the stats of the rest of the cast and is the only character who can heal. When she returns, she's no more powerful than the rest of the cast (since she's no longer competing with pre-pubescent boys). As the game goes on, Cheria surpasses her in healing and Asbel and Hubert surpass her in melee combat, all by noticeable amounts.
Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World has the Tales of Symphonia cast and Richter, who are unable to change equipment or level up via experience points like Emil, Marta, and the Mons. Their levels and equipment do jump up with the occasional plot point, and when the entire original cast joins you at the end of the game, they are all capped at level 50.
In the Game Gear RPG Defenders of Oasis, the first character to join the prince is the Genie, who is at that point a combat monster and nicely carries you through the early battles. However, unlike the other characters (eventually you're a four-man party), he doesn't get experience and doesn't level up. His stats can be improved by expending special Genie power-up items, but they're extremely expensive in shops and are fairly rare in treasures, and by the end of the game the Genie is running healing potions for the other three characters and hiding in his lamp so that he doesn't get killed.
The Crutch Character of the Shin Megami Tensei series has traditionally been Cerberus. You get him in the first game by fusing a demon with your family dog, and in the second game he's a servant of a powerful demon and is "lent" to you for a short period of time at the start. In the online game, he's the partner of your Devil Buster mentor and joins you during the first couple of missions. Even starting at level 1 and under a condition that reduces his XP gain by 90%, he's still far more powerful than anything you can recruit or fuse at that point.
Persona 3 gives you the odd case of Shinjiro Aragaki. He has all the traits of a Crutch Character, advanced abilties, hits harder than any other character, only stays for a short while and is pretty damn cool to boot. However he only joins for a short while midgame when the rest of your team is already leveled enough for him to not really be needed. He makes the boss fights a joke if you use him while he's with you, but it's doable without him so the point of having him join at all isn't really clear.note Particularly since he can also cost you a boss fight by choosing to spend his turn waiting rather than attacking.
Persona 3 also has Akihiko, who rejoins the main party at a higher level than the rest of the cast and as the only member capable of inflicting strike attacks. As he levels up, he becomes capable of wasting enemies in one blow, as well as learns some very helpful status effect spells (even if you have to nudge him into using them). He's also the first one to level up midway through the game. Like the protagonist, he hits diminishing returns toward the end of the game, and unless Monad is unlocked, he'll be unable to gain enough experience to finish leveling up. That being said, it's difficult to form a party without him, as he's arguably the most well-rounded character in the game, doesn't cast from his HP, and can be equipped to deal with his one weakness. Doubles as a Brick Joke in-game when he tells you that his persona is "balanced" and that not relying too heavily on one stat is essential.
Naoto Shirogane could be sort of a skewed example; her skillset allows her access the high level Light and Darkness magic, as well as abilities to boost their effectiveness, and several powerful Almighty spells as well. This combination of powers makes her brutally effective against a surprisingly wide variety of Shadows, including some very annoying ones that most other party members can barely even damage. The letdown aspect of the character, however, comes when you take her into a boss fight... and realize that all those spells listed above are now underwhelming at best, totally useless at worst.
Chie is the polar opposite. While Naoto is good for random encounters and bad for bosses , Chie is a phisical fighter and becomes useless if the enemy can block/repel her attacks, but, if you buff her speed and critical hit, she can knock most bosses, and you know, knocked enemies lose their turns...
The biggest problem with Naoto is that her stats have no correspondence to the skills she learns. One of the major effects of these being that she doesn't even have the MP to be repeatedly casting Almighty spells, and her magic damage is so abysmal that Yukiko can probably hit harder even when the enemy has Fire resistance.
She gets a little better for the PS Vita remake, she learns one-hit elemental spells and can summon magic shields. I know that sounds broken, but remember, you only have eight spells slots, so she can nevel be that useful! Also, be aware that she doesn't learn any elemental Boosts or Amps. Even if you charge your spell, it will do 250% damage with 2 turns right? The others can do 350% damage, with less mp cost!
Destiny Of An Emperor has Liu Bei, who while having far more Soldiers (Hit Points, with Critical Existence Failure averted in a similar manner to the Nintendo Wars series even) than his allies, gains no Soldiers upon level ups. Luckily, given the way the game is set up, this is a convenience. There's a Guide Dang ItLost Forever involving him, however; he leaves upon an event after defeating all 3 Zhang brothers, after which you won't get to fight anymore enemies before the event. If you haven't leveled up to 12, kiss a certain Tactic goodbye, because he's the only person for long enough with the required Intelligence to learn it.
Final Fantasy XII's "Guest" characters generally join at a level higher than yours, but they don't gain levels. By the time they leave they're nowhere near as useful as when they joined. On the other hand, they take up a fourth slot rather than replacing one of your characters, so anything they do is generally useful, unless they start mucking up your Gambits.
They also have the basic stats for a character of that level, so if your party members have Augments, there appears to be a large gap in abilities. This is most noticeable with Hit Points - characters around level 20-ish with augments will have quadruple-digit HP, while guests won't.
Guest characters have their own inventory, which seems to contain an unlimited supply of potions (Hi-Potions for Larsa's second appearance and for Reddas). Since potions are truly useful in-battle in XII (much less charge time than healing spells, and don't deplete your MP), this can really help you soak up damage. A number of sidequests and Marks are best done while you have Reddas.
Mulan and TRON are the exact opposite. When you first visit The Land of Dragons, Mulan's disguised as Ping. Ping has poor attacks, fumbles a lot and is generally a detriment (but required to have on your party). However, later she drops the disguise and becomes one of the better fighters. Tron, on the other hand, was depowered prior to you meeting him, but after accessing the DTD, he's able to use his full power. He gets a second upgrade through the teamwork of the Hollow Bastion Restoration Committee much later on, which makes him one of the most powerful characters in the game.
Golden Sun: The Lost Age has Piers, who joins the party at a much higher level, with good stats, several very powerful attacks, and decent healing spells, but has the lowest EXP progression in both games. Additionally, he has the stats of a physical attacker, but is stuck in the more mage-y classes, while you get a better healer near the end of the game, at which point he's basically just there for backup.
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn has a straight and intentional version of this; in the very first dungeon, two heroes from the first Golden Sun join your party. They're AI controlled, but practically indestructable and deal massive damage (compared to your own characters at least), though they may not attack at all against lesser enemies. After the first dungeon, they kick you out of the house to fend for yourselves.
Eternal Sonata has Viola, who is far stronger than the rest of your party when she joins. She is the first character to have a "heal entire party" ability, and by using manual aim she can head-shot enemies from a distance for incredible damage. However, her actual attack rate is quite low, so when Harmony Chains (and the need to rack up a lot of hits as quickly as possible) become more important to the combat system she loses a great deal of her advantage. This was exasperated in the PS3 version where her movement and speed growth were nerfed.
Dragon Age: Origins has Dog, who is a potent melee damage dealer / tank in the beginning of the game. He starts off with "Dread Howl" one of the invaluable area of effect stunning talents in the game and later on can learn the very useful "Overwhelm" attack. Later though, his lack of threat management abilities, limited selection of talents, lack of bonus stats, and his somewhat lackluster unique equipment cause him to fall behind the rest of the party somewhat. However, he can be built to have high health to compensate for his lack of equipment, and one of his abilities, Overwhelm, is nearly game breakingly powerful, being able to kill high level mage enemies in one hit. Thanks to Leaked Experience, your other party members won't suffer for it either.
Yoshimo, from Baldur's Gate 2. Encountered in the very first dungeon, he has excellent stats and is the game's only single-classed thief. Apart from Jan Jansen, is also the only NPC who can advance in thief skills. He comes with a plethora of powerful traps and a decent magic weapon. He is also True Neutral and fits into practically every party combination, with the only character who dislikes him being Haer'Dalis. All in all, this makes him almost indispensable. Halfway through the game he's revealed to be The Mole and leaves the party, conveniently leaving open a party slot for Imoen to fill up.
In Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, after defeating the B-Ball Monster, Charles Barkley meets Vinceborg, a robotic revival of Vince Carter, whose Eye Beams deal devastating damage to enemies. In fact, whereas Barkley might need two turns to bring a monster down, Vinceborg can defeat that same monster in a few zaps of his eyes. (Vinceborg gets nine zaps per turn.) His services might not ruin your other characters' experience gains, but once he leaves the party and takes his eye lasers with him, your party suddenly feels crippingly empty.
Remilia in Touhou Labyrinth, whose high stats are backed by a barren spell list consisting of one average powered single-target skill and one self-buff. Incredibly useful early on as one of the two only real tanks until about mid-way through the main game; fades to obscurity as stronger characters that actually have more specific uses join up. And of course, the longer you use her, the more skill points you sink in that becomes useless later.
Remilia appears to be this, but she's a very powerful character up until the last couple of bosses in the Plus Disk. Early on, she has by far the best damage output out of all of your characters, up through the 6th floor or so, even longer if you choose not to use Iku as your buffer. Her staying power as a first-slot tank wanes somewhat by the 5th floor, but you should definitely have Meiling at that point, who is generally regarded to as the best tank in the game. A better example might be Eirin, who packs the only percentile healing spell in the game, and is one of two characters who is able to support Komachi well, but she severely lacks the attack power of practically everyone except Cirno, and the flexibility of other healers.
Bleu/Deis from the first two Breath of Fire games fits this trope well. When you first get her, she boasts superior magic power and high level (and is an outright Game Breaker in the second game), but eventually levels off with the rest of your party by the end of the game. Despite this, she actually somewhat subverts this trope because while she does become less powerful relative to the rest of your party, she never becomes useless. And while she can't fuse with shamans in the second game, she remains decent enough without them.
Jacob Taylor of Mass Effect 2 essentially fills this role during the first Half of the game. Jacob automatically starts with Pull and his Ammo power unlocked, leading to him being the fastest character to gain access to Squad Ammo Powers and "Warpslosions." In the second half of the game, he gets overshadowed by Jack, Samara and Grunt.
In the Dreamcast (and later Gamecube) adventure Skies of Arcadia, the Ahab caricature with a metal prosthetic arm, Drachma joins the team at a substantially higher level (considering the point in the game) and brings a new elemental affinity. Soon enough, he actually strands party, to rejoin them, and then leave, on multiple occasions. When he finally stays with the party, the other characters have caught up, and perhaps superseded him.
Early in Legend of Legaia, when you take control of Noa, you are accompanied by a wolf who is indestructible and heals your wounds indefinitely during battle.
An odd case in the sequel. Kazan joins fairly early literally 15 levels ahead of Lang and Maya, with a solid 3 more Art Blocks than Lang. He easily plows through all opponents for the next few dungeons, but levels up so slowly that Lang and Maya will quickly catch up with him. However, he remains a viable fighter for the rest of the game.
In Dungeon Maker, after the first dungeon you get a pet Mimic Slime. It's great early on because it copies the stats of enemies, but while you get steadily more powerful, the slime does not, and eventually its stats will stop growing altogether.
In the Fallout: New Vegas DLC Dead Money, Dean Domino, despite not being the strongest of the three companions, is easily the most useful. His companion perk allows you to explore the denser concentrations of poisonous clouds without taking damage (temporarily), which is essential if you want to find everything, and he's the only one with a gun. Since there are only three enemies in the DLC, only one of which can shoot back (and even then only five times), he's basically a killing machine if you're not boxed in. The only reason he isn't a total Game Breaker is because he (and the rest of your companions) disappears about halfway into the main quest.
Suikoden V gives the player character Georg Prime, a powerful bodyguard who must, for plot reasons, abandon the hero soon after the main plot kicks in. And even before that, he's only available sporadically. By the time he joins for good, he's still one of the best physical attackers in game, but he's not ludicrously overpowered compared to the rest of the party. He's still rendered unavailable for the final battle, unless you are in a New Game+.
From the same game, Sialeeds starts out as a useful ranged fighter/mage, but since she has only one rune slot, which is permanently equipped with a relatively weak Wind Rune, she gets less useful later on. (This is probably the game's way of subtly discouraging dependence on her, so that her Face-Heel Turn about halfway through the game doesn't cripple your party.)
Suikoden in general has a few Crutch Characters. The second game has Jowy, the main character's best friend with which they can perform the single best unite in the game, and who gets the Black Sword Rune until he betrays you and joins Highland, though he does come back for the battle against Gorudo later on and the more recent Suikoden Tierkreis gives you Citro Village's best warrior Dirk for the first dungeon, who is several levels higher than Sieg, Marica, and Jale and does more damage, though once they start gaining levels, and become Starbearers, he is quickly outclassed. He ends up betraying you, too. In an interesting variation, though, he betrays you BECAUSE he's a Crutch Character — his entire complex boils down to 'they're stronger than me, it's all the fault of those books, MUST BURN'.
Hyperdimension Neptunia V has Nepgear starting off at level 10 while Neptune is back to level 1 instead of level 99 thanks to her laziness. And that's not all: when she eventually rejoins the party proper at level 38 her STR stat is easily more than 300 points above the main cast at similar levels, essentially making Nepgear the single most powerful attacker in the game for a very, very long time. And just when you thought all is finally well, the game abruptly kicks out the crutch from under you by forcing you to fight her and Vert in a 4 vs 2 bossfight which, unsurprisingly, is tough as nails even though your party has the advantage in numbers unless you have been grinding...This trope was lampshaded by both sisters.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 has pretty much any 'Early Peaker' monster. They start out strong and tend to get good stat growth, but their levels are capped at 20, meaning they eventually get overshadowed by your 'Well-Grown' and 'Late Bloomer' monsters. They're still useful for infusions, though.
Final Fantasy VI: Edgar's "Tools" is essentially a crutch ability, particularly the Autocrossbow: able to wipe out most encounters early on but very weak compared to the magic you learn later on. The Drill and Chainsaw do decent damage, but magic still trumps. Similarly, Sabin's Blitzes tend to carry the party for a long while.
NoLegs in Epic Battle Fantasy 4. When you first get NoLegs, you have essentially no abilities that hit multiple targets at all; NoLegs can do so for free, and once you get the Knight's Helmet (which you do very shortly after), you can use this ability twice per turn, without even using up a character's action. With all of this, NoLegs can potentially carry you through the first region entirely by himself, even at the hardest difficulty. The problem here is raw power; in the early game, NoLegs' attack power is very good, but there is absolutely no way to upgrade it like you can the other characters' weapons, so late-game NoLegs just translates to Scratch Damage compared to your other abilities, most of which by then can hit multiple targets anyway. On top of that, the Knight's Helmet carries elemental resistance penalties; in the early game this isn't a big deal, but in the late game, almost everything else is offering bonuses to your resistances and you'll want as many of these as you can get.
The pen and paper RPG Mekton Zeta has options for Rookie and Veteran characters. Veteran characters start with higher skills, but gain experience half as fast as Rookies. The Game Master's section even includes helpful advice on how Veterans tend to die or retire halfway through a series to let the younger protagonists take the lead...
Not so rare; Dungeons & Dragons had a similar addition of this type of character. Often called an 'Advanced NPC' by 2nd Edition rules or in more modern terms 'The Over Powered NPC' — a DM can run a pre-generated character who starts at least 3 levels or more higher then the party of players, has high level spells, equipment, abilities, skills, psychic powers, etc, and often leaves either early on, dies off fast, or only helps to a point.
The Mystic Ranger variant, found in Dragon Magazine, is one of these. For its first ten levels, it's essentially a Ranger with casting on par with a Wizard (and no Animal Companion, but ranger companions are crap anyway). Once it's gotten fifth-level spells, it basically stops advancing altogether. Magic is so powerful that the Mystic Ranger will still be a cut above most classes, but it remains one of the only characters to outright end its casting progression so early.
Another example of this type of character is found in 'Anima'; a fantasy anime-style game based off JRPGs. As a Game Master you can run a summoner, archer, sorcerer, or healer type as a temporary NPC who only lasts for the first six levels of new players or even adapted to over come a big nasty boss battle for one story arc.
The tabletop sports/wargame Blood Bowl have the Amazon and Norse teams. Both teams start with all their players having one of the best starter skills (Block for Norse and Dodge for Amazons), which gives them a huge advantage out the box (though not when fighting dwarves). Once the team value start increasing and the other teams are able to buy their players Block/Wrestle and Tackle, the Amazon and Norse teams are left suffering by their poor armour, middling stats and bad selection in positional players.
Orcs. Tough, cheap players with little access to the more advanced strategies of the game. Perfect for novices.
Max from Advance Wars, who has more powerful direct attacks at the cost of inferior indirect attacks will carry you through the first 10 missions or so. By then, you simply need indirect units too much and Max quickly falls to the worst CO category.
Jagen (or Jeigan, depending on how you Romanize it) in the first Fire Emblem game, a purple Paladin who is charged with protecting Marth, is the former Trope Namer. He had above-average starting stats for a character in the first chapter, but very low stat growths. His name has become a slang term in Fire Emblem fandom for similar characters — nearly every game in the series has one, although they're usually not quite so useless later on, in which case they're usually called an "Oifey archetype". Blazing Sword Marcus, Seth, and Titania are seen in particular as being reasonable choices for taking all the way to the endgame.
Actually, even the non-Oifeys Jeigan tend to be borderline Game Breakers. Jagen needs only two stat bonus item to be viable for endgame, and if you decide to throw them all on him(this is not recommended) he comes out with the highest possible stats in the game, and he has max movement. Essentially, he can be made the One-Man Army. Every Jeigan after him is BETTER and can pull the same trick. Sothe is actually the only one that really suffers, and that's because his class is pretty bad at fighting, not because of his actual stats, which are actually really good. He makes up for it by being a utility unit, though.
Furthermore, most games give you a powerful character early on who's already undergone his class change. These characters qualify as crutches for two reasons. First of all, while they can easily slaughter the entire army on earlier stages, they'll only get one XP for killing them, leaving the rest of your party under-developed. Furthermore, their stats are relatively low for their class and level. A common tactic is to take away their weapons and just use them to take shots.
Some characters manage to avert this though - sometimes, a pre-promoted character may have good enough bases or growths that they remain feasible late-game. Some characters like Wolf and Sedgar in the DS games are prepromoted, but actually become Magikarp Power. (Low base stats, best growths in the game.) And in other games, Seth, Titania, Elincia, Sothe, and Frederick act as this, but remain feasible throughout their respective games. In fact, Titania and Elincia are actually pretty popular picks for end-game in Fire Emblem 10, and Sothe is forced to come along because of plot. So you may as well use him anyway to make sure he doesn't explode in one hit.
Baldarov in the Genesis strategy game Warsong (or Volkov if you're playing the original Japanese Langrisser). In the beginning of the game, his level is maxed out and he deals far more damage than your allies and enemies, but by the fourth or fifth scenario most of your characters have caught up to him. He's simply there to absorb damage from the stronger armies until he gets assassinated at the end of Scenario 5.
In the Super Robot Wars Original Generation games, you have the Battleships that deploy all of your units-the Hagane/Kurogane and the Hiryu Custom. At first, they're incredibly useful-in the Ryusei route of the first game, the Hagane is essentially capable of soloing most of the early levels. As the game wears on, however, their accuracy drops and their Wave Motion Guns get eclipsed by some of the later mechs. They can still be used as fire support, and they generally have fairly useful support Spirits, but they're too valuable to be risked in combat (getting one destroyed is a Mission Failure), tend to run out of energy too fast for sustained engagements, and in general aren't as useful, combat-wise, as one more Super Robot on the field would be. The fact that they can repair and rearm your units, however, means that you'll still be glad you had them.
In the same game on Ryusei's route there's also arguably Ingram. He's one of the better pilots you have early on, his default mech measures up well and comes with a powerful built-in weapon which makes him one of your harder hitters. Then about halfway through the game you get the characters from the other route and, though you have some more characters who outclass him, he is still good enough to warrant deploying him. Then he betrays you and teams up with the bad guys to become many people's That One Boss and you never get him back. You get to keep the Wildschwein though.
Kyosuke's route gives us Sanger Zonvolt, THE SWORD THAT SMITES EVIL! with his fantastic stats, Grungust Type 0, useful skill set and always-critical-ing-Colossal Blade. Then he betrays you too and becomes a boss. Then he comes back, although he's still just as good.
Original Generation Gaiden seems to be rife with this:
Lamia Loveless is quite possibly turned into one. She appears for several missions in the beginning and is quite possibly the most useful characters to use (barring Kai). Then she and several others get captured and she's out of the player's control until the last quarter of the game, and while she still remains useful, you're given other Game Breaker like Ialdabaoth or the Compatible Kaiser that she might end up collecting the dust instead...
Axel Almer and Alfimi. They only appear in several missions, they can't be customized except for the last two levels. Axel is a decent fighter, but as said above, your pool of Game Breaker at the point he can be customized could render him just mediocre (and unlike his game of origins, you can't put him in the aforementioned Vysaga, which he COULD use in the original game). Alfimi, on the other hand, is a class of her own not due to her kickass ability in battle, but her kickass Seishin set (you'll need them).
Shu Shirakawa. He helps you out rather early in the game and also pops in at one time when Axel-Alfimi are featured. When he does join you, his stats look really abysmal that he's often considered a dead weight if taken to the battle against Dark Brain. Then, per what he does in his origin, he betrays you in the final stage.
Interestingly enough, by 2nd Original Generation, the majority of them becomes MUCH more viable, as Lamia joins very early once the Masou Kishin section is done, and despite the nerf Vysaga got, she's still an all-rounder with either it or Angelg. Alfimi is pretty much the same (just make sure you collect your Skill Points). On the other hand, Axel and Shu flat out enter Game Breaker status since Axel joins mid-game, and while Shu joins later and instead stuck with Granzon, but more than makes up for his blunder (see the SRW section of that for their details)note Shu gets even more notorious once he's amped further in Dark Prison and even gets his nifty Neo Granzon.
Non-OG example, Daitarn3 in Alpha Gaiden is a wonderful tank and can move very far for a Super Robot due to flight and it's alternate modes. However, as you get later on, tanking is very difficult. Not to say he's not a top tier mecha by the end, HE IS. But Banjo can no longer charge in blindly without expecting to have his HP bar go from 11000 to 2500 in a few hits, and his free attacks falls in 3 range, when the preferred range would be 4. Luckly, Banjo has shield defense skill, high SP and damage output keep him a must for the endgame.
Another non OG example, and probably one of the best examples in the series to date, Kamina in Z2 Hakai-Hen. He's got the best stats of any of Gurren Lagann's pilots by far, but as per the series, he dies halfway through the game. And breaking away from the SRW tradition, his death is completely unavoidable. It's still pretty incentive to use him, though, because it also means raising Simon's stats.
Alpha Gaiden has a really interesting example in Tetsuya Tsurugi, which is possibly the most bizzare example in the series. He is simmilar to Kamina(or rather the reverse since Tetsuya is made first), being basicaly the best pilot in his own team stats-wise. Great, his personal mech is an awesome unit. It has high armor, good movement, and powerful weapons such as the one shot Post movement Great Booster, Far range expensive Thunder Break, a MAP weapon Thunder Break, and the post movement 4 range free Rocket Punch that deals high damage, and its EN cheap stronger variants with 3 range all of which is enchanced by Mazinpower making it possibly one of the best unit in the entire game. Not only that, Tetsuya has Great Effort seishin that basicaly makes him far above the others in term of level advancement, making the entirety of the early to mid game a total joke just by deploying and training him. However, he lacks Alert seishin, which considering the late game bosses power in Alpha Gaiden, makes it hard for him to handle bosses and he suffers Daitarn3 Tanking problem, but not as severe thanks to his better set of weapons. The story puts him on a conflict with the entire team, and implies that he will leave the team for good. And one of the midgame stages pits you against him Brainwashed and Crazy against Koji, and Getter team UNCOMBINED. So what makes him an interesting example ? First, while he is not as powerful in the late game, he is so far above the entire team from the start, especialy in term of firepower that you'll end up using him anyway. Second, his MAP weapon is so useful against late game bosses that abuses the support defend skill. Third, and why he is so interesting as an example is the fact that unlike any other Crutch Character example, he is so important in the storyline that you just CANT ignore upgrading him unless you want a hard time, and you actualy get the most total usage out of him(in fact, he is the first character you control after the Time Skip and barring routes shift, he almost never leaves the party from there on), and despite how the story implies he will leave, [[hes not, in fact, all of the events caused by said implications makes him ends up more developed than any other character in your team]]. And thanks to his skills, no matter how you ignore him, he will easilly catch up in short amount of time without any notable problem. In short, he is a Crutch Character that seems to does everything that a Crutch Character usualy do, forces you to fall victim to this trope, and heavily implied to be a Crutch, and he is made to be as fit as possible to looks like a Crutch, yet by the endgame he ends up Subverting this trope despite having done his Crutch punishment at some point in the game.
Surprisingly and ironically, the true Crutch Character of Alpha Gaiden ? Mazinger Z. Not the pilot, its the mech itself. It is basicaly Great Mazinger redux. It has nice weapons, good upgrade growth amongst Super Robot Genre(1200 extra power, every other Super caps at 800-1000), and nice stats. Thanks to the implications, you might end up focusing on Mazinger Z than Great as a close subsitution. Oh and he gets upgraded in the endgame, which since its already so good, it seems that it would be really nice. Then why is it considered this ? Mazin Kaiser. Mazinkaiser is so much better than Mazinger Z that unupgraded Kaiser has a comparable raw stats to FULLY upgraded Mazinger Z(which is basicaly near impossible in normal means) and did not share/inherits upgrade with/from Z. It has HP regeneration as well. Oh, and do you think the power-up will save him ? no, its acquired in the same stage as Mazinkaiser making it basically pointless. Put it on Tetsuya ? it lacks the MAP attack that makes Tetsuya valuable. Your other choice to put him is Jun who have lousy Mellee stats, Sayaka whose Seishin is more support based, and Boss who despite having better melee stats than Jun have a rather bad stats overall, lacks a lot of essential Seishin and bombing capability is too good to pass on the remaining stages, thus making Mazinger Z a mecha collecting dust in the base.
Disgaea: Hour of Darkness has Laharl himself. If you use him and him alone, he'll remain several levels above any enemies he faces in the game proper, allowing him to steamroller through all opposition with far less grinding than it would take to make any other character useful. Unfortunately, he is less capable than a Divine Majin, and while he can transmigrate, he can't change classes when doing so, so he's at a disadvantage when Level Grinding for the bonus content (which over half of any serious player's playtime will be devoted to).
For the series in general, healers and defensive characters. They can be crucial for much of the game (the entire story mode for starters), but during all the post-game content Disgaea tends to turn into an offense only affair. Basically at some point both your characters and the enemies will be doing so much damage that everyone dies in one hit, meaning defense is meaningless and healing impossible to even use.
To some small degree, Prinnies. They are never particularly strong characters (We Have Reserves is putting it lightly; they only cost 1 HL to revive), but have the unique ability to explode when thrown, damaging everyone around them. This can be extremely useful at the beginning of the game, when your characters have little in the way of wide area attacks available. But soon you will get area attacks that don't require sacrificing allies. Also the damage prinnies do when exploding depends on their hit points, and it won't be long before the amount of damage you can do with real weapons far outstrips this number (which is why the game eventually becomes mostly one hit kills, as described above).
Battle for Wesnoth has this in its flagship campaign. Most characters in Wesnoth start at level 0 or 1, and tend to max out at around level 3. One of the early characters in Heir to the Throne, Delfador, is a level 5 archmage. On the one hand, this means he can fry almost anything he touches in the early levels. On the other hand, he is already at his max level, so he makes poor use of XP that would be better given to your other units, enemies do get stronger as the game goes on, and losing him is an instant game over making it dangerous to keep him on the front lines. The game even finds places for him to vanish to occasionally, probably to keep novices from making the later missions Un Winnable by mistake.
The Orcish Assassin unit also falls into this category in that leveling it up is not at all worth the XP. The two abilities that make the Assassin worthwhile, Marksmanship and Poison, are both had at the first level. All leveling an Assassin into a Slayer gives is a bit more HP, a longer attack sequence, and more XP for the enemy who manages to kill it.
The cyborg recruits in X-COM 3: Apocalypse start off more resilient, accurate and courageous than any human or mutant recruit at the time of hiring. The catch? They cannot increase their stats by training and so quickly get left behind when the meatbags start getting the hang of things. The only trump card they have by the endgame is complete psionic immunity.
The psionic immunity makes them incredibly useful in the early game, too, because a common early game enemy is the "Brainsucker", which, while easy to kill, moves quickly and permanently mind controls a character if they successfully leap on their head - and the most common early game enemy weapon is a launcher that shoots brainsuckers at people. Androids are not only immune to being mind controlled, but the brainsuckers will completely ignore their presence, rendering most early game enemies harmless. Relying on them too much in the "Brainsucker" phase of the game means your human and mutant units won't have the experience they need to take on the later game threats, however.
Their predecessors, the HWP units of the first two X-COM games, have a milder version of this. They're faster, better armored, immune to mind-control shenanigans, and tougher than your rookies, but don't get stat increases and are 4 times the size of a person. And rookies only get to become supersoldiers by getting out and mixing it up with those xeno bastards, so one cannot rely on the HWP to do all the major work or you'll never get your troops to those One-Man Army levels of power (Also, losing a rookie is cheaper than losing a HWP). However, HWPs are still the best at a particular role; their lack of an inventory and immunity to psi-powers mean they're perfect fire-support platforms. They can carry more rockets or blaster bombs than any soldier, and you never have to worry about them panicking or being controlled into shooting your own troops with those explosives. And while rookies are easy to replace, late-game highly-trained soldiers are not; the HWP's large size means they can be used as mobile cover.
The SHIVs, the HWP-equivalent for XCOM: Enemy Unknown, do a similar thing. Faster, tougher, better-armed, more accurate than rookies with mind control immunity to boot, but lose out to highly-trained meatbags. Nevertheless, their usefulness is such that many strategies for Classic and Impossible difficulties involve rushing to get them out the door ASAP.
Of the human classes, the Heavy displays this trope. Its first upgrade is the ability to fire a rocket that can damage enemies and destroy any cover they were hiding behind, and it also gets upgrades like Holo-targeting (an ally aiming at the same target as the heavy gets a +10 bonus to aim, useful for low-level units that have a low aim stat) and Burst Fire (the Heavy can fire twice in one turn if it doesn't take a move action). At later levels, the rockets lose some of their value as other high-damage weapons become available, and the Heavy's aim stat grows more slowly than other classes, causing them to miss a lot when shooting.
The Zuul of Sword of the Stars appear to be this at first. They have several advantages: Their ships start out cheap, faster both tactically and strategically and better-armed than most races'. They can take slaves, depriving an enemy world of population while driving up their own production. Having to overharvest means they can build up early money fast. However! They are a subversion who hew much closer to Difficult but Awesome. See that page for more details.
Spacecraft built as missile buses can be this. Early on, missiles do more damage than anything else you have available and the early weapons are horrible at point defence, meaning a missile bus setup can easily wipe out brawler-types. As the game goes on, however, useful point defence and stronger direct-fire weapons become available, making a mainly-missile configuration less useful.
World of Warcraft has PetBattles which fall into the TBS category, and they can be VERY prone to this. Due to the way the pet battle quests work, some people go from level 1-25 using the same three pets. By the time they reach Pandaria, though, sheer power doesn't cut it, so if your team doesn't have type advantages, (or, god help you, disadvantages against them), then this can label all of your first three pets as Crutch Characters due to not being up to the task as opposed to more type-appropriate pets. Even worse is the fact that some pets, such as ones bought from the Auction House or gained through Trading Card Game loot cards can be level 25 when you first get them, and there is nothing stopping you using them on the first trainers. Well, apart from the fact that when enemies get strong enough to actually kill your single level 25, the game will completely turn around and bite you on the arse.
[[Catharsis Factor: Of course, your angry response to losing to a random wild pet in a pet battle can be to just hit it with your sword and watch it die in one hit, which makes it more tolerable than other mons series]].
Pepper in Future Tactics: The Uprising is the only character in the game to have a Line of Sight and a Ballistic attack, both of which have unlimited ammo, which makes her more useful than every other character combined despite being a 12 year old girl. The game takes her away from you very abruptly in a cutscene.
There's also Low's father, who doubles as A Taste of Power. Since he's basically Low at his max level, he carries you through the first fight. He dies after the first level.
Ragnus in Gungnir. While it's not as noticeable on Basic or Advance, you're forced to use him on Nightmare and plan good strategies to win, unless you abuse the Mercy Mode feature.
As of the fifth iteration of the series, Civilization has a few:
The Aztecs' Jaguar Warrior unit is available at the beginning of the game, and dominates the jungles the Aztecs tend to start in, but is rendered obsolete with iron weapons.
The Huns are an early rush faction with deadly Horse Archers and a Battering Ram that can one-shot rival cities, but by the Classical Era they aren't any better at conquest than any other civ.
Polynesia's unique Wayfinding ability allows all of its units to embark on and cross oceans from turn one, giving it a tremendous lead when it comes to settling islands and distant continents. However, this ability becomes obsolete as soon as a rival civilization discovers Astronomy in the mid-game.
Beat Em Up
Advance Guardian Heroes has an interesting version of this. Throughout the game, you're pitted against the main characters from the first game, and upon beating them they lend you their soul, offering a massive stat boost. However, said stat boosts get taken away frequently (whenever you fight one of the heroes, first you have to beat them, and then the souls you've collected so far are taken away and turned back into the characters they belong to, and then you have to fight them all over again all at once) and in the final boss fight they're permanently taken away one by one, so if you aren't still leveling up these boosted stats you'll be in for a world of hurt.
Non Video-Game Examples
Ed's character arc in season 8 of Scrubsmesses with tropes in a way that illustrates this trope. Ed starts out Brilliant, but Lazy, satisfied with where he is. However, none of the other interns are. So while Ed is off trolling Lost fansites, the other interns are actually getting better to the point where Ed is left in the dust. When he completely fails at bettering himself in Dr. Cox's eyes, Cox doesn't hesitate in firing him and replacing him with a better inter.
In Kashi Mashi, Hazumu is this for Yasuna until the end of the series. Yasuna had a weird condition where she was unable to see men, then later it got worse when she also lost the ability to see women as well. But Hazumu, using The Power of Love, manages to clear her selective blindness, and in the following OVA she rejects Hazumu yet again so that she could stand on her own from that point on.
In SpiralHiyono Yuizaki, who was hired by Kiyotaka to constantly support his younger brother Ayumu. When Ayumu finally confronts Kiyotaka, Kiyotaka promptly kicks away the crutch by revealing she was his puppet the entire time in a gambit to make Ayumu fall into such a rage, he would murder Kiyotaka.
Arguably Belkar from The Order of the Stick. The halfling is a mook-killing machine, leading to his pseudonym of "Sexy Shoeless God of War", but he had never seriously impacted a battle against high-level opponents, especially spellcasters due to his horrible will save. Early on it was guessed he could kill the rest of the party while they slept, but this is likely no longer the case.
In Dragon Ball Z, Goku eventually begins worrying that he is a Crutch Character among the cast. He knows that, eventually, he will die permanently, and if the other characters haven't become strong enough to cope in his absence, that will be a huge problem. To that end, he starts trying to train others up to his level, but the new villains inevitably are so overbearingly powerful that only Goku has the strength to beat them in the end.
Shirou Emiya serves as this for the first part of Fate Revelation Online by assisting in the boss battles. Because he's an actual magus and has experience in the Holy Grail War, he can ensure that the battles end quickly through brute force and ensuring that no unnecessary deaths occur.