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Cowboy Bebop: Spike and Jet are bounty hunters who can never seem to cash in on the millions of Woolongs they would honestly deserve, for reasons that are as ingenious as they are sadistic on the part of the show's producers. As the main characters can never sit back and relax and always need to look for new opportunities to screw up, this trope is in fact the very thing that drives the show all the way to the ending; by the final episode, after having dealt with everything from psycho prototypes to environmentalist groups bent on eradicating the human race, there's no paycheck to be had and the Bebop crew still find their refridgerator is (mostly) empty.
Tokyo Mew Mew: Half the Filler in the show. Ichigo beats up a monster, but a rival school beats her school at a gymnastics competition. Retasu saves a boy she has a crush on, but he proposes to another girl....
In Dragon Ball Z, though they probably don't expect any reward for what they do, after Cell is defeated by the Z warriors everyone thinks Mr. Satan (Hercule) did it, a city is named after him... etc. What makes things worse is that Mr. Satan actually faked a video tape to make it look like he did it.
Pokémon: Already Ash has saved the world ten times over, and yet the only Championship he has ever won so far is the Orange Island Leagues.
Inverted and played straight. The inversion is that Kyubey would grant any wish of a chosen girl in exchange for a contract to become a Magical Girl, no questions asked, as a form of "reward." However, the kicker is that now, they have to risk their lives fighting witches for as long as they live, this being the work for that one "reward." Played straight as no matter how much they work in slaying witches (either for their own reasons like Kyouko or as a from of duty like Mami), their efforts would not be recognized nor even be known. As Homura puts it, "...dedication has no reward."
The protagonists of City Hunter have neutralized dozens of evil guys and avenged many wrongs, and are one of the few things preventing Shinjuku from becoming a Crapsack Ward by taking down the worst criminals of the place (plus a few outsiders with no sense of decency), yet they're dirt poor. By their own fault: Ryo and Kaori's constantly damage their own home, and the repairs eat away a lot of money...
Action is his reward... but that doesn't mean he wouldn't mind a little public adulation... or for the Daily Bugle to stop calling him a menace... or for the police to stop shooting at him... or a little rent money...
There're a fair few Harry Potter fics where his "reward" for killing Voldemort is to be thrown into Azkaban, kicked out of the wizarding world, stripped of his powers, etc. In one particularly egregious case, once he offed the Big Bad he was reborn as Tom Riddle and had to live through Voldemort's entire life doing (and hating) all the things he'd done in order to "preserve the timeline." Then, once he died as Voldemort, he found himself back in his infant body on the night his parents were killed and had to repeat the whole cycle all freaking over again...
The Sburb Glitch FAQ uses this to explain why the narrator sounds like such a "veteran". This somehow became a huge AU.
In the Web Animation/RWBY fic Just like a Fairytale, Ruby breaks into the Schnee manor, destroying multiple guard robots, so she can take Weiss on a date. (Weiss has very disapproving parents.) And after all this, Weiss won't let Ruby watch her change clothes.
"B-but I destroyed like a gazillion androids!" She protested.
"We don't have that many androids." Weiss retorted.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin: The town promises to pay the piper if he successfully gets rid of all the rats. After sending the rats into a river, the town reneged his reward. The piper decided to take his revenge by taking away the town's children.
The Story Of The Youth Who Went Forth To Learn What Fear Was: A youngster spents three nights in a haunted castle. While there, he gets a corpse out of its coffin to warm it by the fire. Then it reanimates and announces he will kill him. The youngster feels this is "very ungrateful" and locks the corpse back up in his coffin.
The Incredibles. In the opening scene Mr. Incredible saves a) a suicide jumper, b) a young fan, and c) a trainful of people. The jumper sues him because he didn't want to be saved, the train passengers sue him for their injuries, and the fan grows up to become the villain Syndrome who is trying to destroy all superheroes.
In Dragonslayer, the hero and his girl return to her village to find the local priest extolling how God has struck down Vermithrax's evil, while the elderly king sticks a sword in the dragon's carcass for a medieval photo op. Neither the villagers nor the royal court acknowledge for a moment that the hero's wizard mentor is the one who really brought down the dragon.
The Gods Must Be Crazy. Andrew Steyn, without any conventional weapons, rescues a bunch of schoolchildren by fighting off a platoon of guerrilla soldiers and gets a runaway Land Rover under control only to have the appropriately named Jack Hind take the credit in front of the woman he loves.
Betty Grissom in The Right Stuff gets a nasty dose of this. She spends much of the movie dreaming about the big payoff she'll eventually get from the military for all those years of her sacrifices and her husband Gus's heroics. When the grand payoff for Gus's space flight (that almost got him drowned) turns out to be a cheap motel room with some beer in the fridge, she has a conniption.
In Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, Dirk winds up getting caught in a plot involving time travel, saving the entirety of creation at the very end of said plot. When he returns to his detective agency, he realizes that the meddling he did with time-travel has, among other consequences, caused him to lose a most profitable customer. He sends her one final bill that reads "Saving the world - No charge".
His Grace, The Duke of Ankh, (Blackboard Monitor), Commander Sir Samuel Vimes on the other hand hates that he keeps getting rewarded with titles etc. for his exploits.
In the Liaden Universe, what do you get for saving the planet? KICKED OFF the planet. A subversion, though, in that the protagonists were kinda thrilled to no longer have the responsibility. Played straight for some of the people who helped them, though.
The injustice of it all welled up inside of him so that he wanted to yell with fury. If it hadn't been for him, nobody would even have known Voldemort was back! and his reward was to be stuck in Little Whinging for four solid weeks, completely cut off from the magical world, reduced to squatting among dying begonias so that he could hear about water-skiing budgerigars!
And then later on...
"WHO HAD TO GET PAST DRAGONS AND SPHINXES AND EVERY OTHER FOUL THING LAST YEAR? WHO SAW HIM COME BACK? WHO HAD TO ESCAPE FROM HIM? ME...! BUT WHY SHOULD I KNOW WHAT'S GOING ON? WHY SHOULD ANYONE BOTHER TO TELL ME WHAT'S BEEN HAPPENING?"
It goes back way further than that. Harry's 'reward' for stopping Voldemort the first time was to be locked in a small cupboard for ten whole years, while the Death-Eaters (Voldemort's followers) were 'punished' by becoming members of A-List society with high-level government influence. Sad isn't it?
Harry's mom, who'd actually stopped Voldemort by sacrificing her life, got some passing mentions here and there, while the whole wizarding world praised her son whose only merit was, well, being there to be the object for her sacrifice-induced protection spell.
Artemis Fowl The Opal Deception. Despite having just prevented the destruction of Haven and stopped an interspecies war, Holly is banned from attending the funeral of her mentor, since she's technically under arrest and awaiting a court martial.
In William Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1, Falstaff takes the credit for killing Hotspur, but Prince Hal lets him.
Ayn Rand's Fountainhead climaxes with a courtroom speech claiming that this is the oldest trope of all. Paraphrasing - "Thousands of years ago the first man showed his brothers how to make fire. He was probably burnt on the pyre he had taught them to light, for he had dabbled in dangerous forces. Then the first man showed his brothers how to make a wheel. He was probably torn on the rack he had taught them to build. Etc."
Twice in the Knight and Rogue Series. First, after risking arrest to prove his brother-in-law is innocent, Fisk is thanked by said brother-in-law before being told to get the hell out of town, before he and Michael are booted out of town anyway. The second time they nearly get killed apprehending a group of wreckers, and though they do get a reward, Michael gives it away to his former crush as a wedding gift/piece offering to the groom without consulting Fisk first. He tries to justify this as the man having helped with the arrests by calling in the police, but Fisk thinks that, as the ones who found the criminals and foiled their plot, they should have gotten the money.
A Song of Ice and Fire. Tyrion Lannister thinks he'll finally get the respect of his family for saving King's Landing from the attacking forces of King Stannis. Unfortunately the three people handing out the rewards — his nephew King Joffrey, his sister Queen Regent Cersei, and his father Lord Tywin — all despise Tyrion, so he never gets credit for any of it.
Live Action TV
Played with in a 3rd Rock From The Sun episode where Harry and Tommy return someone's lost wallet. When they realize that they didn't get a reward, they spend the whole episode bugging the guy and dropping obvious hints. Finally, he gives in... and they immediately tell him to Keep the Reward.
Pretty much the story of Sam's life as the title character in the show Reaper.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer's third season episode "The Zeppo" is a classic—the entire episode revolves around this trope with sidekick-like-character Xander being ignored by the more powerful characters as they focus on preventing an apocalypse. However, he ends up saving the day by preventing the high school (location of the Hellmouth) from being blown up. Nobody ever found out about that. It should also be noted that Buffy, Willow, and Giles were all in the high school library (the precise location of the Hellmouth) at the time.
Lampshaded to great effect in Heroes. Claire Bennett, with her regenerative powers, saves a man from a burning train. However, fellow cheerleader Jackie Wilcox claims credit for it and is treated like a town hero. Of course, this is subverted mightily in later episodes.....
Father Ted. Ted uncovers a betting scandal revolving around the 'King of the Sheep' contest. As he walks out of the tent where the contest is being held, Dougal remarks 'One thing though, Ted. If Chris has been disqualified, does that mean we don't get the money you bet on him?'
The Doctor Who story The End of Time has the Doctor point this out. In the show's 47 year history, the Doctor has saved Earth, other planets, and the universe as a whole countless times, making sacrifice after sacrifice. Every friend he ever makes will die, while he is nearly immortal. He has destroyed his race to save the rest of the universe, making him the last of his kind. He's completely alone in the universe. His reward? None.
What makes it all the more heart-wrenching this time is that the Tenth Doctor finally loses his temper when he realizes that in spite of all the good he could continue to do, he has to sacrifice his life (read: trigger another regeneration) to save his friend, Wilf.
Wilf: I'm an old man. Just leave me.
Tenth Doctor: Well, of course! Look at you, not even remotely important, but me? I could do so much more! SO MUCH MORE!! But this is what I get...my reward...WELL IT'S NOT FAIR!!!
Merlin has this hard, and there isn't really anything he can do about it since magic is a crime punishable by death. He has secretly saved Camelot itself from total destruction multiple times over the course of the show. He saves Arthur's life Once an Episode, often several times an episode, and aside from the exceptions that can be counted on one hand, either someone else gets the credit or Arthur never realizes his life was in danger in the first place. He's even saved Uther a couple of times, even though the guy's the reason why he has to keep his magic a secret.
There's an old Doonesbury strip where the Skylab astronauts return from their mission to be congratulated by... the Lieutenant Governor of Iowa. In the words of one: "I'll bet we don't get a parade, either...."
In Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent saves the ship from being destroyed. Zaphod tells him good work. Arthur says "It was nothing." Zaphod says, "Oh, forget it, then."
At the end of Super Robot Wars Orginal Generation, the Hagane and Hiryu Custom has just saved the Earth from not only civil war but an alien invasion as well. Original Generation 2 began with the ATX team underneath Kenneth Garret, a slave driver who gives them no time off for relaxation. When they escape from him they end up under the control of Lee Linjun, a no nonsense captain who will gladly sacrifice everyone for victory, and who is jealous that he didn't save the world. Both of these characters (as well as several others) consider the L5 campaign to be a complete fluke.
Link is almost universally gypped. Poor kid deserves a knighthood or something for all the stuff he goes through in the games, but what does he get? In The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, he finds out that the Windfish's dreamworld was erased and he's still shipwrecked in the middle of the ocean. Ocarina of Time "rewards" him by sending him back in time to childhood and stripping him of his fairy. Most of the other games end ambiguously at best. Midna may have said it best when she suggested that Link is meant to "toil in obscurity forever." Now remember that most of these Links are different people throughout history, and you realize that the name "Link" is a jinx for every poor sap that has it.
We get a few hints that Link is probably rewarded after the end of the game, but since it is usually a long time between them, or they take place in different places, he is forgotten. The best example is probably seen in the Wind Waker: His Ocarina of Time incarnation, the Hero of Time, had gotten a huge statue made after him, and lots of paintings depicting his adventures leading up to the defeat of Ganondorf. Too bad he never got to experience it, as he was sent back in time.
The non-canon animated series from the 80s was even worse than any of the games. Not only does Link do all of those things and get no reward for his trouble, everyone in the show still treats him like a useless moron and Zelda can't even be bothered to acknowledge him as a hero while repeatedly insulting him and his well-proven capability. There's even an episode where Ganon steals Link's soul and his ghost is only able to seek help from Zelda to stop him from dying a slow death as his spirit fades out of existence. Zelda never lets up on reminding him what a great burden it is for her to lend any amount of aid to the guy that regularly saves her, her family, her kingdom, and her entire damn universe, on a weekly basis.
"Well, excuuuuse me, Princess!"
The non-canon The Legend of Zelda CDi Games were bad enough in their own rights, but the one game that actually starred Link had Zelda similarly dismiss his abilities and insult him. Even at the end of the game, when he tells her that he saved the world (again), she snottily huffs "Yea right." Granted she wasn't witness to Link's actions in that game, but considering how she's seen all the other times he's saved the world, it's still cold for her to treat him like an incompetent boob.
"I just saved you from Ganon!" "You did not."
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. Has undoubtedly the best example of this trope. Link is trying the find Navi and gets sidetracked for days in an endless 3 day loop. Goes through the entire quest to finally save the inhabitants of the village from the big scary red-eyed moon of doom only to be told that he should probably not attend the carnival that was scheduled for the day after.
Well, Zelda did kiss him at the end of Zelda II The Adventure Of Link...though we didn't get to see it. Still, maybe he doesn't have it as bad as we thought.
Robot Chicken did a sketch to this effect, where Link saves Zelda and she gives him twenty rupies instead of the shag he wanted. Apparently everyone feels bad for the guy(s) except the people who created them.
The game itself doesn't hint at this, however. The ending depicts as obtaining the triforce and it granting the wish he wanted, so why the adaption had a Bittersweet Ending, the game implies that Link got everything he wanted.
At least in Twilight Princess we see Link getting recognized for his exploits. Strangers recognize him in the town market after the Escort Mission, and congratulate him for his bravery. The Gorons can't stop offering to aid your quest after you complete Death Mountain. La Résistance is in awe of your courage.
Skyward Sword seems to subvert this because it does imply that there is romantic relation between Link and Zelda.
In Red Alert II, General Vladimir gets the vacation and hero recognition after the player (a.k.a. Comrade General) won the previous mission.
Also, Red Alert III ends with the Soviet player character getting slightly more recognition.
Speaking of Command & Conquer , Tiberian Twilight's GDI campaign ends with Kane telling you, and proving, that Col. James had lied to you about what happened to your wife, and then sort of explains what his deal is, at which point she comes in, shoots him (not that it actually kills him, he is Kane after all) and then puts a round into you as you make your way to a Scrin portal to activate it and make way for Kane's ascension (if for no other reason than to get rid of him). Kane stops her from finishing you off, thanks you, and ascends by stepping through the portal (apparently taking the bulk of Nod with him) at which point you die. You personally ended the Tiberium Wars forever, struck the finishing blow against Tiberium as a problem and finally allowed Kane to move on, yet you die alone and are presumably remembered as a failed usurper and terrorist.
The difference in the Nod ending is that James is shot while Parker's wife lives to see him die, and Kane takes pity on him, saying that humans are "so fragile." In the GDI ending he says "thank you" to Parker in a genuinely grateful tone.
In the ending of the first Diablo game, after the hero has fought through hundreds of monsters and finally defeated the Big Bad, what does he get? He shoves Diablo's Soulstone into his own forehead, which causes him to become Diablo in the second game. Justified in that it is a Crapsack World where No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.
This finally averted in Diablo III, where after 2 games and one expansion that ended with no visibly good future for anyone Diablo 3 ends on an uplifting note with the player killing Diablo after he becomes the God of Evil by merging with the other evils, which also makes him Deader Than Dead. There's no hints of getting rewarded, buy hey, at least the leaders of hell are gone.
Then in the expansion, things go to hell even more, and Diablos return is hinted. Here we go again.
One early sidequest - called Ragnelli's Robbers, iirc - in Summoner features a wealthy merchant who offers you a "substantial reward" for retrieving something he claims is his from some bandits. The reward? 10 gold.
A perfect example of this trope occurs in Fallout 1. The Vault Dweller literally saves the life of every single resident of Vault 13, and what's his reward? He gets banished into the nuclear wasteland.
At least the sequel gives you the satisfaction of knowing the guy who kicked you out got lynched. And if you have the Bloody Mess perk, the Vault Dweller shoots him in the face on his way out.
In the original Pokemon Red And Blue games (plus Yellow), when you go into the front of the building you receive the Eevee from, one man promises to give you a "rare item" if you collect all 150 pokemon and show him your pokedex. So, after grueling hours of walking in circles in tall grass, a small fortune spent in pokeballs, and much excitement, what does he give you? An Ether! That's right, an item you can buy in the department store down the way is your reward for wasting hours upon hours of your life.
In the Mega Man Battle Network games no matter how often Lan and Mega Man save the entire cyber-network/world, they never seem to get an actual reward or significant recognition.
Well, in MMBN 5:Team Colonel Baryl tells him that he was recruited because of his heroic achievements, even listing them one by one; of course, this just makes it more jarring when later he agrees with Shadow Mantesting Lan and Mega Man...yes, the same Shadow Man that they defeated back in the second game.
The Chaotix Detective Agency more than likely go through this. Their first known mission was orchestrated by Dr. Eggman, leading to the three members to attack him when he promises to pay them "after [he] takes over the world!". And when he tries to escape after the Big Bad is defeated, Vector roars out "THAT SLIMEBALL!" and the trio chase after him again! And it's more than likely every other appearance is the same thing - they save the world, but they don't get a paycheck!
Doom could be the Trope Namer, at least at the end of the first (shareware) episode. After defeating the Big Bad Monster, you run onto the exit portal and are teleported to a zone where you can't see anything but hear nasty monsters all around you and immediately start taking damage until you are about to die. Then the end screen comes up expressing your expected outrage for you: "where's your fat reward and ticket home?" etc. Even the ending of the third and final episode of the full game is not entirely satisfactory, due to the scene which greets you after you "get home".
At the end of Tak The Great Juju Challenge, Tak and Lok return to the dining area, expecting a huge celebration of their winning the Challenge. Instead, they find only Jibolba sweeping. Jibolba explains that everyone went home early to beat the traffic.
Happens to Winter and Otra more than once in Girly: They do all the work (well, them and elephants), Captain Fist gets all the glory. They don't seem to mind, however.
Double subverted in The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob!. After saving the world from the Iridium Bomb, Bob gets a Congressional Medal Of Honor. He accepts it, sets it on his mantle, and largely forgets about it. Having it doesn't change his life one way or the other.
8-Bit Theater plays this in spades with respect to the Light Warriors, but it's justified in that any acts of heroism they may have committed (or coincidentally been present for) are completely incidental to the horrific acts of villainy they perform on a daily basis.
'Winning' Survival of the Fittest. You get to live, that's it, and even that isn't even guaranteed: the winner of V0 got punted back into V1 and died, and the winner of V3 didn't even live past his first year.
In the webgame Antaris Realspace, after more or less reversing the tide of the entire war and taking out an enemy flagship with just a few ships, the ending says this: "Command has rewarded you by giving you a pay raise of 10 dinars. Those cheap Muthers!!!"
Homer Simpson gets passed over for an "Employee of the Week" award to an "inanimate carbon rod". Later in the episode, he stuffs another inanimate carbon rod in a space shuttle door to prevent a Columbia-like disaster, but instead of being heralded a hero, the carbon rod he stuck in the door gets a parade.
It might be linked to the fact that Homer wedged the carbon rod by total accident while trying to club another astronaut with it, initially tried to remove it for clubbing purposes, and was responsible for the door breaking in the first place. But if you ask Homer, he was totally passed over unfairly.
Lisa Simpson writes an essay that gets a corrupt Senator arrested and impeached, but that same essay is beaten by a Vietnamese immigrant's in a national contest (see Crack Defeat).
When Mayor Quimby is about to be killed in an electric chair, Lisa comes up with the idea of firing a message tied to a mini-rocket, but Ralph gets the credit because he was the one who thought of asking Lisa. Although initially annoyed, Lisa congratulates Ralph along with everybody else after Bart says: "Come on, Lise, let him have this one - it's Ralph!"
Tommy Gilligan saves the whole Kids Next Door organization, but Numbuh 362 insists that a computer failsafe prevents them from re-inducting him in, and, hey, rules are rules (luckily he decided he didn't want to stay anyway).
If you think about it, the fact that he was allowed to keep all his memories of the KND might count as a reward, they usually erase all memories of the KND of anyone who leaves.
Rivals Kim Possible and Bonnie Rockwaller set their differences aside to save Camp Gottagrin (formerly known as Wannaweep) from a scheming villain, but feel angered at a rival school winning an award at the cheer camp being held there. The only thing they've learned from the whole ordeal? "Cheer camp stinks."
Clone High: Joan sheds a tear at everyone lording on Abe being the MVP of a basketball game, even though Joan scored her school's only points (er, point) of the game.
I Am Weasel, "This Bridge Not Weasel Bridge": Baboon freaks out reading a newspaper proclaiming Weasel to be responsible for the bridge, because Baboon was the one who finished all of the construction.
In Weasel's defense, he does try to tell everyone that he didn't finish the bridge, but nobody listened to him.
Happens a few times in Ben 10. Notably in the incident with The Big Tick, where after saving the planet from a giant ravenous blob... Ben has to clean its slime off the van while his companions relax and point out spots he missed.
Also happened to Kyle Broflovsky of South Park. In a reference to The Bible, Kyle pays for everyone's loan, so they may spend money again. After few hours of paying with a plastic credit card and gathering a huge bill from every person in town, Kyle passes out and is transported to his home. When he wakes up, he sees on TV a report on "one person, who has sacrificed so much". When it turns out that the person in question is really Barack Obama, Kyle snaps in anger "oh, come on!".
An infuriating example occurs in Doug. Basically, Doug finds an envelope full of money. Naturally, being the good-hearted kid he is, he turns it into the police, and when the money is unclaimed after a month, it legally becomes his. As he is counting it, however, a Coincidental Broadcast from the old woman who lost the money in the first place appears on the TV, where she tearfully hopes for its return. He is motivated, out of nothing but the kindness of his heart, to return the money. His reward? A pack of gum. Being Good Sucks, indeed.
On the other hand, while he didn't get a reward, he got something a little better - the recognition of his older sister Judy, who stops being a jerk to him.
This mainly happens to Jo in the Alternate ending to the finale of Total Drama Revenge of the Island, as she gets annoyed after Lightning refuses to share the million dollars to her and the rest of the contestants of the season, she also complains that she got ripped off after dragging both of those maroons (ie. Cameron and Lightning) to the finale.