Wally: I've decided to dabble in crime. I need some henchmen. Are you in? Asok What does a henchman do? Wally: A henchman's job is to be gunned down in reverse order to his importance. Asok:How important am I? Wally: I wouldn't pack a lunch for orientation day.
Villains will appear in strictly ascending order by menace.
This trope has ancient roots. Possibly the earliest example, at least in the English language, is the Older Than Print epic Beowulf. It just makes good sense that as our heroes fight the forces of evil, they should get better at fighting the forces of evil. So as the story progresses, the fights should get easier and easier. Of course, an easy fight is just bad drama, so you have to consistently increase the threat the heroes face. This results in the Sorting Algorithm of Evil. The first villain you meet is the weakest, and the last is the strongest. As the heroes get strong enough to defeat their current enemy, a new enemy will emerge that forces them to reach another skill level. It would be an Anti-Climax if the hero defeated the Baddest Ass and spent the remaining time contending with not-quite-as-Bad Asses.
There are several ways to justify this; due to Lowered Monster Difficulty, the current villain usually Forgot To Level Grind while the heroes are out collecting Twenty Bear Asses and are Gonna Fly Now thereby outclassing him. This at least provides an in-story explanation for the Lamarckian evolution of evil from one bad guy to the next. In some cases the Big Bad the heroes defeated last time was actually a mere member of a powerful organization. The others can show up to avenge their fallen comrade, so now we have the previous big bad times two or more. In a series centering around military technology this can be explained by technological progress. The heroes will get new weapons, strategies, and better technology, but so will the enemy.
Occasionally, a particularly strong or evil villain will ignore this trope and arrive early to beat the hell out of the heroes, only to leave them alive because they're Not Worth Killing. Villains who use this as a tool are often Not So Harmless Villains. Sometimes, rather than toss a stronger villain at the heroes the writer might decide to surprise them with an Outside-Context Villain that uses different tactics than brute force.
A problem comes up if a long-running show goes past its first Grand Finale. We may believe that the ultimate Evil Overlord is enough of a tactical dunce to think that sending his henchmen out in ascending order was a valid strategy. But why should the new, unrelated, Big Bad happen to be even stronger? Sometimes the Big Bads might form a string of Men Behind The Men, making this structure more sensible. Although this leads to new Fridge Logic issues: why doesn't the Man Most Behind use the unimaginable power of his position to just wipe all the heroes out instead of just sitting there? If the first Big Bad is only a local terror, bigger bads may not have even been aware of the heroes. The increasing threats they face are a reflection of the threat they pose to the ultimate boss. And then there's the Fridge Logic that can rise when one wonders why later, more powerful villains would tolerate the earlier, weaker ones hatching plots of their own. If the villain of Season Three wants to destroy the world, and the villain of Season Four wants to conquer it, why would the Season Four villain tolerate his predecessor's attempts to destroy it? One way to address these issues is to make the later villain a Sealed Evil in a Can who only gets released after the earlier villain is defeated, not necessarily as a result of it.
Another downside of this trope is viewers who get into a show later may find early villains lame by comparison when they go back to catch up - "Pshaw — we're supposed to be worried about this guy? He can't even blow up a galaxy!" Villain Decay can be used to soften this blow; if the Big Bad ends the season a lot lamer than he started, the next season's enemy doesn't have to actually be any stronger to give the impression of an increasing level of tension.
This trope is particularly common in Role-Playing Games and Video Games: the more and stronger enemies you fight, the more experience and power you get. You also get the magical weapons and armors they drop. You have no chance against mid-game monsters with a starting character, but by the time you get to them, you are ready. That makes this the perfect trope for a Small Steps Hero, since they can clean up the world one bad guy at a time.
Related to Convenient Questing where ascending menace is laid out geographically, and the player must proceed through these regions in strictly ascending order by menace. (Mount Doom? It's right over there, but you have to go through the Hills of Moderate Evil, which are themselves on the far side of the Forest of Inconvenience, reachable via the Ghibli Hills.)
When this happens involving entire breeds/species of villains, it's changing the Villain Pedigree. If it's because various villains were sealed away it's Sealed Cast in a Multipack. If a particularly powerful villain remains on screen for too long and can't keep up, compare Lowered Monster Difficulty.
See also Sliding Scale of Villain Threat, which breaks down the scales of villainy.
Contrast Evil Evolves.
Compare Always a Bigger Fish, Lensman Arms Race, So Last Season, Sequel Escalation, Rule Of Escalating Threat.
Since the examples on this page necessarily detail most of or the entire run of their series and what villain later gets replaced by whom, beware of spoilers.
The original gives characters an explicit numerical "Combat Rating". note A very strong human had a rating of about 100, while the heroes' rating was over 9000. This held out until the middle of the Frieza arc, when the devices that were used to calculate these combat ratings were destroyed; at this point, the Big Bad's strongest form had a rating of around one hundred and twenty million, whereas just two months earlier the heroes had been hard-pressed to deal with an opponent nearly seven thousand times weaker (Vegeta, then at 18,000). The plot helps support the progression; Raditz arrived first, and called on a pair of stronger allies; the heroes went after their boss next; the next Big Bad was created from said boss's cells, plus those of the powered-up heroes, and so on. The final villain was a mild subversion because, while its final form was considerably weaker than form beforehand, its unique physiology made it nearly impossible to kill and its nature became far more merciless. If you go back to watch the series again, you soon realize that even the first fight was equally as tough as the last. The numerical concepts of "power levels" were quietly dropped after the Frieza saga, as they were starting to get to ridiculously high levels (in the first few episodes, a power level over 1000 was impressive, whereas by the end of the Frieza saga, Goku and the Big Bad were in the hundreds of millions. It seems the hero increases in power just enough to get beaten by the next big bad. While there are episodes where Goku casually dispatches villains who fought toe-to-toe with him in his youth, these are naturally filler.
Starting from Frieza and continuing onward, each Big Bad was the most powerful and dangerous being in the universe, even more so than the previous most powerful and dangerous being in the universe.
Subverted in the special Yo! Son Goku and His Friends Return!!, in which an alien menace arrives and is easily defeated, because it arrived a bit too late in the chronology, and everyone was so enormously powerful that it really didn't ever have a chance at all.
Subverted in Dragon Ball GT, where the new Big Bad turned out to be pathetically weak, but had the ability to possess the bodies of the various insanely superpowered supporting characters surrounding the hero in order to increase its strength.
It is later played this straight after possessing Vegeta where he becomes much stronger than a Super Saiyian 3 Goku, and a Super Saiyan 4 was needed to defeat him. The next Big Bad was Super 17, who forced Goku to go all out, and the final Big Bad, OmegaShenron was much stronger than Super Saiyian 4 Goku on his own. It took a fusion and a universal Spirit Bomb to take him down, making him the strongest if you include him in the canon.
Beers from "Battle of The Gods" which is viewed as canon is even higher in power than any villain in the canon, being an official "God of Destruction" for his universe and is feared by all the gods in the universe. He also curb stomped Super Saiyan 3 Goky without trying even the Super Saiyan God State, officially the strongest Super Saiyan state only forced him to go to 70% of his power and Goku still lost. That's right, Goku famous for always winning, was outmatched by someone will always be better than him
Here's the real kicker, his assistant Whis is actually much stronger than even he is and not only that there's the fact that there's eleven other universe's Gods of Destruction are likely even stronger than Beers.
Robotech carried this off by declaring that Zentradi < Masters < Invid. Robotech: Shadow Chronicles added The Children of the Shadow to this progression. However the Zentreadi are, in absolute terms, far, far more powerful than their creators, the Robotech Masters. The defenders take them down by exploiting a couple of secret weapons and the Zentraedi's special weaknesses, the biggest single battle of all three Robotech Wars comes in the first one, wiping out most of Earth's population and wrecking civilization. Afterward, the heroes are much weakened when they face the Robotech Masters and are even weaker when the Invid come. The Invid, too, are weaker by far than they once were.
Yu-Gi-Oh! and Yu-Gi-Oh! GX presented villains not only in ascending order by menace, but also, for some reason, effeminateness. For instance, the first Big Bad in season 1 of GX was a withered old man; Season 2's villain was a younger, more strapping adult male. Season 3 had a Hermaphrodite Duel Monster. The effeminateness of the villain ties directly into their personal interest towards the hero. At first, the Big Bad is usually just interested in a certain trinket or item carried by the protagonist, while the next is usually more interested in the protagonist's actual abilities and strengths. The biggest of the Big Badsalways seemed to have some kind of intimate interpersonal relationship with the hero, which would border on Ho Yay (since both sides in this series were invariably male), if only the Big Bad wasn't trying to enslave/murder them for some deep, scarring betrayal they blame on the protagonist. There are only two exceptions: Dartz, in the Doma Story Arc, and the Big Bad of the Capsule Monsters arc, which, as far as the rest of the series is concerned, never even happened. Even the original series (never released beyond Japan and taking place before the anime we all know and love) has most of the villains being random thugs met in chance encounters, fitting into the algorithm perfectly.
This is played straight throughout the continuum of all three series so far, the first villains were merely bullies that wanted to abuse their authority, then came Seto who was willing to kill the protagonists as well as being a very high-ranking member of the corporate world. Then came Shadi and Bakura, both with magical powers, with the latter being far more malign and able to alter reality, then came Pegasus who was a more personal threat with Pegasus who wanted the Puzzle to revive his dead lover, and a much longer arc. Marik arrives and really raises the Cerebus Syndrome with far more deadlier stakes involved and more personal past to the Pharaoh. Once his dark side is revealed, it's either a Take Over the World or watching the world fall to ruin depending on which dub you watch. The biggest threats outside of Sieg who merely wanted to best Seto,were Dartz and Zorc the real identity of Bakura, with the former being even more dangerous as his ambitions to destroy humanity involving a dangerous Eldritch Abomination needed offerings from two worlds with life forms, while the latter wanted merely The End of the World as We Know It. GX comes around and while Kagemaru merely wanted youth, Saitou, or rather the Light Of Destruction, wanted universal dominance and was kind of responsible for everything in the series, while Darkness' Assimilation Plot was threatening, it was not on the same scale. 5Ds introduces Z-ONE who is implied to have complete control of the space/time continuum and finally Zexal has Dr. Faker with the implied goal of destroying other dimensions.
The opposition on Sailor Moon also sorted itself out into ascending levels of power per season, starting with the Dark Kingdom (which could only field a single youma at a time) all the way up to Galaxia, who threatened the entire universe. The only exceptions seem to be Ail and En who, regardless of probably being weaker than the last villains, had to face senshi with unusually strong attacks. Naturally this filler was forgotten later. It also seems to have been the original M.O. of the Amazon Trio, explaining their penchant for disguising themselves; likewise, there aren't real arc villains either. The strange thing is that the five Big Bads of the villain groups (Queen Metaria, Death Phantom, Pharaoh 90, Queen Nehellenia, and Chaos) are all portrayed as having the same dark power to destroy or conquer the universe which would mean they were at the same level of power. In the manga, it's because they're all the same villain being reincarnated over and over again.
Naruto initially averts the algorithm by including fights between characters much stronger than the main heroes throughout the first part of the series. The first major enemy, Zabuza, is so strong that the Genin can't be expected to hold their own against him (even his Battle Butler, Haku, is too much for them). In addition, the Big Bad, Orochimaru, shows up in the second major arc, and for the longest time, even the strongest characters could, at best, manage a tie against him. However, this trope shows up more and more as the heroes gain strength until they're able to hang with the big boys on their own, and once Orochimaru is defeated, we are introduced to a number of major villains who are even stronger than him. Granted, one of the later antagonists is an internal one with more of a threat for his political influence than his physical power, and a number of major villains meet their defeats for reasons other than the heroes being stronger (Orochimaru himself was at his weakest when he was taken out), but even then, when a number of previous antagonists are resurrected during the Shinobi World War arc, most of them fall victim to this trope (with Nagato being the main exception). The trope plays out this way mostly because in part 1, the main characters are fresh out of ninja school and there are several more powerful adult shinobi around; as the heroes catch up to their elders after the Time Skip, this trope shows up more and more.
Largely averted by Hunter × Hunter. A notable secondary sometimes-friend-sometimes-foe character, Hisoka the Magician is introduced as one of the most dangerous men alive. Nearly three hundred chapters later (after a long hiatus), he's still one of the most dangerous men alive. The various enemies that the lead characters meet fluctuate wildly between "can kill them with a sneeze" to "wotta wimp!", with no real bearing on what point of the story they're at chronologically.
Also subverted with the Chimera Ant arc, while Phantom Troupe and the Greed Island enemies were strong threats, the Chimera Ants are very jagged in ranking, some were very weak and others are much stronger than even the Big Bad, their king prior to his death was the strongest character thus far.
In One Piece, this is mostly justified. The goal of the series is to reach a geographical destination that has been known but not yet reached for over 20 years, so a lot of pirates have gathered around it. Naturally, the strongest are the ones who have gotten the closest.
As Luffy and crew get further along the Grand Line, they discover tougher opponents. The series isn't above throwing the odd curveball though, like Mihawk first appearing and dominating Zoro very early in the series, and Bellamy showing up and going down like a punk after the defeat of Crocodile. In contrast to major arc villains, Eneru is a bit of a subversion in that he is the most powerful and dangerous opponent Luffy has actually defeated, with enough power to destroy entire islands and Nigh-Invulnerability, but Luffy hadthe kind of power Eneru was least capable of countering. Later on in the show's run, the Sabaody arc started with the Strawhats dominating some lame pirates, then introduces nine pirate crews, some equal to the Strawhats. It ends with the Strawhats completely dominated again by some of the strongest characters introduced in One Piece up until now.
Subverted with the Marineford arc, with numerous high level Marines and pirates that are just too strong for Luffy. These include the Seven Warlords of the Sea like Doflamingo and Mihawk to the three Admirals and from the Vice Admirals to Sengoku. It's going to take time for the Straw Hats to overcome these opponents.
Played straight through the first three major story arcs (Substitute Shinigami, Soul Society, and Arrancar).
In Substitute Shinigami, the Monsters Of The Week start out as ordinary, non-sentient Hollows but steadily grow more powerful and cunning, culminating in the Gillian Menos Grande at the end of Ishida's introduction story.
Ichigo's near-instantaneous defeat by Byakuya in the prelude to the Soul Society arc shows that the Shinigami up the ante as antagonists. On their way to rescue Rukia, Ichigo and Company fight their way up through the Gotei 13 hierarchy, from seated officers to captains with released bankai.
Once again, the increased threat level is indicated by Ichigo being handily defeated by Ulquiorra and Yammy's scouting party at the beginning of the Arrancar arc. When the battle begins in earnest, the Arrancar attack the protagonists in line with their power levels: Fraccion first, then Privaron Espada, then up through the ranked Espada, then finally the Co-Dragons Gin and Tousen, then (after 5 LONG years of publication time) the Big Bad Aizen himself.
Subverted in the Fullbringer Arc. Tsukishima and Ginjou are far less powerful than Aizen or even the Arrancar (on the level of Ichigo's early Soul Society Arc opponents) but make up for it by being much more manipulative at a time when Ichigo is especially ill-equipped to deal with their mindgames.
Consciously subverted by the Vandenreich in the Thousand Year Blood War Arc. Yhwach is a Combat Pragmatist who uses a Blitzkrieg strategy true to his Nazi motif, by sending his most powerful fighters in first to steamroller the Shinigami and using the rank-and-file to mop up after them.
Monster Rancher is complex: Pixie is the first of the big bad 4, but stronger than Gali and Greywolf — it takes the entire team sans golem to beat Pixie, but only Moochi or Tiger to beat Gali and Greywolf. Then they meet Moo (the Big Bad) on the road quite early, and the encounter plays out like a Hopeless Boss Fight. Although it's played straight in a sense, since Naga is the strongest of the big bad 4, and after that it's Moo in his Dragon Body who is incredibly powerful. But is subverted again, because in the next series they're up against one of his captains, who is obviously much weaker than Moo was.
Averted in Rurouni Kenshin. The characters make a point of stating several times that the villain of the third arc, Enishi, while very powerful, is just not on the same level as the villain of the previous arc, Shishio. Enishi manages to make up the difference by striking while everyone's still recovering from the fight with Shishio, sending several of his henchmen to fight the heroes, using a style that seems specifically built to counter Kenshin's own, and fighting an extremely emotionally distraught Kenshin. In short, while Shishio would probably defeat Enishi, Enishi is in a much better position to defeat Kenshin.
Plus, some of the enemies are not as big of a threat; Inui Banjin gives Sanosuke a hard time, but once he's able to use Futae no Kiwami the battle ends rather promptly. This is contrasted with Anji, who traded blows with Sano despite the technique supposedly being a one hit kill.
D.Gray-Man would justify this, since the Akuma all have specific Levels... except that, as the heroes get stronger, they start fighting higher-leveled Akuma in larger groups.
In YuYu Hakusho, every villain is billed as the most powerful, strongest, blah blah blah. This begins with several C-Class Demons early on and ends with the heroes fighting S-Class demons at the end of the series. Somewhat justified in that the Spirit World set up a powerful barrier that prevented powerful demons from entering the living world.
Actually, that isn't entirely true. His first three foes (two of which would become party members...) were largely unknown and were just a threat because Yusuke himself was unknown (in fact, his first foe in that arc was arguably more powerful than the second two). His next foes were actually some of the more powerful monsters around, but again are not major threats to trained warriors (it is just that the Spirit Detective Agency didn't HAVE any trained warriors...). After this, the heroes fought largely unknown people (in fact, the foes in the arcs immediately after the saint beasts were considerably weaker than said beasts), with the only real challenge being Younger Toguro (who purposefully held back to test Yusuke). In fact, after the Dark Tournament until Sensui, the foes were much weaker than Yuseke's team, but they fought in special ways. From Sensui on though, it was a textbook case. So while the individual fights didn't necessarily follow this trope, the big bad of each arc definitely did.
Saiyuki inverts this with its seasonal big bads. The first series has Homura, the God of War. Reload has Dr. Nii's disciple Kami-sama, and Gunlock features Hazel, a mere priest from the west. It also plays with the trope by making the villains harder to defeat in other ways - Homura was unquestionably a bad guy, but is followed by Psychopathic Manchild Kami-sama, who just didn't work on the same level mentally. Then there was Hazel, who was in all appearances a good guy, creating a huge ethical backlash to fighting him.
The classic example of the technology creep variety would be the Zeon mobile suits in Mobile Suit Gundam. They go from the rather pathetic Zaku which was designed for fighting conventional vehicles rather than other mobile suits, to the fast, heavily armed & armored, though somewhat unwieldy Dom to the powerful & agile Gelgoog, which nearly matches the Gundam's performance, with a few Ace customs and Super Prototypes along the way for flavor. This would be a fairly realistic setup... if the war had lasted longer than a single year. The novelization is somewhat better about this as the war drags on for two years & the Gelgoogs never show up. It also subverts this trope, as the antagonists use a slightly less advanced Mobile Armor to fight the Gundam in the climactic battle due to supply shortages and though the Gundam defeats it, it proves to be enough of a distraction that a Mauve Shirt piloting a lowly Rick Dom is able to finish Amuro off.
Digimon uses a series of Evolutionary Levels: Baby, Rookie, Champion, Ultimate, Mega. The team has to advance to the next level to face the next level of enemies. This gets a little ridiculous in later series, where every bad guy seems to be Mega level and some are just that much more powerful then other Megas.
The original Digimon Adventure has Devimon, an evil Champion-level Digimon. Then there was Etemon, who was purely comical as opposed to the serious Devimon, but was at the Ultimate level and thus considerably stronger. Then came Myotismon, an Ultimate of great strength who was the first Digimon in the show to evolve to Mega form. Then came the four Dark Masters, who were all Mega level. The last, most powerful enemy they faced, was Apocalymon, an insanely-strong Mega level, who beat the digidestined at first, but was defeated by their Grand FinaleAll Your Colors Combined attack. Explained by the Dark Masters: they were heading up a mountain, through each of the Dark Masters' turfs one at a time and the Dark Masters rarely interfered in one another's matters. The four got progressively tougher the further up the mountain they got, the most powerful Piedmon reigning from the very top.
The V-Tamer manga went a step further and introduced Arkadimon, which was the "Super Ultimate" Digimon. Among other things, it killed Sigma's Piedmon (a Mega level) while still at Rookie level. In one hit. Its Champion level did the same to Seraphimon (a considerably stronger Mega) with about as much effort. Consider that for most Digimon, a single Evolutionary Level is often an insurmountable hurdle.
Also, in Digimon Tamers, the first several Digimon to appear are all Rookie or Champion level, and are easily beaten by the Rookie level Digimon used by the protagonists, that quite quickly unlock Champion level. Later, the Devas appear and nearly force them to unlock Ultimate level, after which they wind up in the Digital World and learn of the D-Reaper, which eventually results in the good guys unlocking Biomerge Digivolution. In the end, it all came down to 4 Megas against one Mega. Guess who kicked ass for most of the fight.
Digimon Savers averts this, in that the first major "villain" they encounter is of the Mega level. Then, however, it turns out that he's not actually a bad guy, and the main antagonist becomes Gotsumon (a Rookie level digimon), the human-hating minion of the aforementioned bad guy. He ends up manipulating another Mega level digimon into attacking the humans, and then it's revealed that everything bad and the reason why Digimon distrust humans is due to the actions of Dr. Akihiro Kurata - a human. Later, it appears that Kurata is going to be usurped by Belphemon, Kurata instead fuses with it and remains in control of it until his defeat. Yggdrasil rounds out the series as the penultimate antagonist, but considering his actions are due to Kurata's own misdeeds, Kurata still remains the main villain of the series.
Magic Knight Rayearth. The first enemy the Power Trio faces, Alcyone, is a powerful Ice Mage but easily dispatched. Then come Ascot, Caldina, Lafarga and, finally, Zagato himself. While their power levels are all over the place, they have specific skills that make them increasingly dangerous, and it would have been easy for any of the later foes to eliminate the Knights had they been dispatched earlier. In particular, one wonders why, since Zagato knew all about the Magic Knight legend, why he didn't go after the girls himself as soon as they arrived. In the anime, Zagato does show up for a few moments to show the heroes just a tiny portion of his power. Had he actually attacked them, they would not have survived. What Zagato wants to do Other than keeping his beloved Princess alive is never fully explained. He may not intend to kill the Magic Knights, regardless of what that will mean for him. The Ascot arc shows the trope in miniature: the first few "friends" are indeed strong enough to squish the Magic Knights into paste, but they have glaring weaknesses that the girls discover and exploit within minutes. However, his very last Summoned Monsters are titanic foes that can go toe-to-toe with the ancient Rune Gods, and continue to be powerful presences in the second arc whenever the Knights need rescuing. He always had access to them, so why he didn't call these right off the bat is a mystery to everyone.
Code Geass. Lelouch faces off with increasingly improving resistance from The Empire, but manages to cope because his allies also get better mechas over time. In the first major battle, he faces inept commander Prince Clovis and a bunch of regular Knightmares with his terrorist allies using mostly outdated Knightmares of their own, and they own the field... And then Suzaku shows up... Algorithm leaps somewhat later when Lelouch tries to do this again against much better leader Princess Cornelia, and his (different group) allies are slaughtered. He later however turns the tables when he tries this again, only using the environment to his advantage, supported by the JLF, and with Ace Pilot Kallen in a better mecha. He nearly has Cornelia beat... And then Suzaku shows up... again. Eventually his allies begin to power up faster than The Empire, and he's likely have won the war, if not for some extreme circumstances and misfortunes. Eventually Kallen's able to easily turn Suzaku's mech to scrap, even after it gets an upgrade. By the end of the series however, his terrorist army has gotten so good, that when he's forced to fight them, this time commanding the forces of The Empire, he's no match. Unfortunately the trope is subverted in R2, where Lelouch deals with the immortal V.V. (the target of his vendetta), The Emperor, and Schneizel when everyone thought it was going to be the other way around. Even worse, The Emperorkills V.V. before Lelouch even learns that V.V. was the one who killed his mother.
Played straight then subverted in History's Strongest Disciple Kenichi, in the manga at least. The storyline covered in the anime plays it straight, with Kenichi fighting stronger opponents as his skill improves; high school bullies, Ragnarok mooks, the Eight Fists of Ragnarok, and finally their leader Odin. Kenichi's struggle against YOMI, the next antagonist group subverts it. YOMI's leader Sho Kanou, touted as the strongest fighter of them all and inheritor of the styles of YAMI the series' Big Bad organization... is the second YOMI member Kenichi defeats. However Kenichi then gets his ass handed to him against another member of YOMI. Possibly justified since each of the YOMI members and their masters in YAMI believes that he or she is really the strongest; some of the YAMI members believed that Sho was unsuitable to be YOMI leader. That and Kenichi's fighting ability is highly dependent on the circumstances involved; even though he's practically superhuman at this point he's still slightly intimidated by high school bullies.
Eyeshield 21 and other such sports manga tend to increase in scope as the story goes on. Athletes face opponents from other cities first and other countries later. Played straight and subverted earlier in the manga, where the Devil Bats' first opponents are a very weak team, followed immediately by the uber-talented and powerful Ojou White Knights, then the moderately challenging but not all that Zokugaku Chameleons. But, naturally, once they get to the fall tournament, the easy games all happen first. It is a knock-out tourney so only the best get far. Subverted again in the Kanto tournament, where the match-ups are decided through a lottery. They do not go against the nine-times-in-a-row-champions Shinryuuji Naga in the finals, or in the semi-finals, but in their very first match. They then face their ultimate rivals, the White Knights in their second match, and fellow darkhorse team, the Hakushuu Dinosaurs in the final. All are very close, very tough matches, and which one was the best is a matter of debate among the fandom.
Jojos Bizarre Adventure both plays this trope straight and averts it. While the enemies fought in each series grow stronger the closer that you get to the end, the fact that each volume stars a different hero means that Big Bads don't necessarily have to be stronger than what came before. For example, while Dio of Part 3 was quite dangerous, he wasn't as immediate a threat to the world as the Pillar Men of Part 2.
This is arguable considering what his true master plan was revealed to be in part 6, which is to make a Perfect World for Dio. And although orchestrated by one of his minions and the series 6 Big Bad Enrico Pucci, it was still a large threat either on par or greater than the Pillar Men. Especially since the Perfect World would not only have to remove the Joestar family, which are Dio's biggest threat, but also anyone who would ever pose a threat to Dio, including the Pillar Men and the series 5 Big Bad Diavolo.
Given that above point, the only time it's really been subverted (without getting into technicalities) is with Kira from series 4. Although to be fair series 4 is about simply protecting one town over protecting the world. He was merely one serial killer as opposed to a vampire or a mob boss.
While Kira most certainly did not have as much ambition or ressources as any of the other Big Bads, he won the Superpower Lottery so handily that he was just as hard to beat as he should given his place in the series.
Played straight in-between Part 1 and 2. In Part 1, vampire Dio was the big threat of the series, with vampire zombies serving as the series' mooks. Come Part 2, vampire zombies have disappeared and vampires are downgraded to Mook status to make way for the Pillar Men. It helps that the first Jojo had to learn Hamon to stand a chance against Dio, while the second Jojo already knew how to use it from the get-go.
Saint Seiya: By Law of Chromatic Superiority, the heroes must first battle their peers, the Bronze Saints (and, later, their Evil Counterpart Black Saints) in a local skirmish for the Gold Cloth; then, the Silver Saints, who hunt them down for said Cloth; and finally, the Gold Saints, who never leave the Sanctuary. Then come the Asgardian God Warriors, who can give Golds a run for their money; Marine Shoguns, likewise; and then Hades' Spectres. The last foes they encounter are actual Gods, and the teaser movie for Chapter of Heaven hints that the Bronze Boys are raring to take on the Olympian Gods themselves. Subverted in the manga when Gold Saint Virgo Shaka seeks out and nearly kills Bronze Saint Phoenix Ikki before the actual plot even begins. Their battle, such as it is, is shown as an extended flashback.
Played with in Mahou Sensei Negima!, where the first major antagonist that Negi faced -Evangeline - is the strongest character in the series, only winning the fight by a combination of luck and the fact that Eva wasn't really taking the fight seriously/more or less let him win. Played with because part of Eva's curse was still in effect, and when he first fights her without it, he can barely last three minutes.
This trope is straight out mocked in the second episode of Haruhi-chan. After being 'defeated', Asakura warns Kyon and Yuki that she is "the weakest of the radical four", which will now come after them. And above the radical four, are the top three leaders..!
Played straight for most of Fist of the North Star. Shin, Ken's initial rival and the man who engraved the seven scars on his chest, isn't even the strongest of the Nanto Seiken masters, but rather Souther, a character who is introduced a bit later and is shown to be immune to the effects of Ken's martial art at first. Jagi, the first of Ken's adoptive brothers to appear in the story, is a petty thug who never truly mastered Hokuto Shinken, but is still stronger than the average mook, in contrast to Raoh, the eldest and the last one to appear, who is the Big Bad for most of the first series and ends up killing most of Ken's allies. Then there's Kaioh, the ultimate Big Bad of the second series, who was the only villain that was actually immune to Kenshiro's ultimate technique of Musou Tensei and almost killed him during their first encounter. Subverted in the final chapters of the manga, in which the final villain, Bolge, was just an average wasteland thug no stronger than Jagi.
In Busou Renkin, the series begins with the main characters fighting off animal- and plant-type homunculi. Then comes along a stronger animal-type homunculus, and then the humanoid homunculi, and then Victor, and then Victor AND the Alchemist Army, and then Victor in his third stage...
And where does Papillon fit in all this?
Star Blazers / Space Battleship Yamato. Initially, Desslok does not consider the Star Force a serious threat, and orders low-ranking shlubs Ganz and Bane to fight them. After Ganz and Bane's defeat, Desslok takes the threat more seriously and sends his best general, Lysis to fight them. After they defeat Lysis, then Deslok decides to take them on personally.
In the second season, first the Star Force fights some weak Comet Empire lackeys while Desslok's hanging out at the Comet Empire, then they fight Desslok who almost defeats them but is tricked to run away, then a tank battalion that almost destroys the Space Marines, then they fight Desslok again except this time he's ENRAGED, then they take on the Comet Empire, then the dreadnought inside the Comet Empire.
In the third season, Desslok's buddy-buddy with the Star Force. His generals do not understand this and keep throwing more and more power to capture the Star Force without telling him. He is not amused when he finds out.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is complex. Angels fought later in the series are generally stronger, but some are weaker or don't fight directly. The 3rd fought may be the most powerful. In response, NERV's forces follow a sort of Parabolic Power Curve, at their strongest from about the time Asuka joins until Shinji surpasses her. This means that some of the midgame angels, like Matariel (the spider, 7th fought) and Sahaquiel (The Colony Drop angel, 8th fought), which might have been quite strong or invincible against a single Eva...weren't. As the series moves on towards the endgame, things start coming apart for NERV and they have to start expending irreplaceable resources to defeat the angels. All this makes it hard to determine the strength of the individual angels: Sahaquiel seems more dangerous than Ramiel (the octahedron angel, the aforementioned 3rd fought) but was more easily defeated, Zeruel (12th fought, the one with the skull and which blasted its way into the Geofront) seems to be the most powerful direct combat angel, but if the Eva pilots had still been capable of facing it as a cohesive team, like when they fought Matariel and Sahaquiel, who knows what would have happened. Angels twelve and up did have increasing effects on the pilots' mental state.
But then completely plays it straight in the Finale, since the Final Angel is stated to be the absolutely most powerful of all in terms of AT Field, able to No Sell anything short of another Physical God. Fittingly, there were 2 of them in the same room with him...and he would have let himself die regardless anyway. Then The Movie ends with....uhhhhhh, the two aforementioned Physical Gods doing....stuff that would make your head explode. And I mean....both the Characters themselves...AND YOU!!! Enjoy your Mind Screw, my friends!
Actually, the really final angel is mankind. The Eva pilots final opponents are other humans. Well that and the MP-Eva series.
It's not that complex. During the first half, most of the angels - save for #5 Ramiel - were more human or animal-like and laughably weak, compared to the second half - starting with #11 Iruel and #12 Leliel - which started taking new forms and started posing a greater threat physically as well as a new threat psychologically, with three of the remaining five angels actually capable of defeating the Evas and/or killing their pilots.
Actually, most of them stopped bothering to attack in a direct physical manner. They switched to becoming Personified Aspects of the Cast's psychological problems and actually toned down on most of the raw power. Some of them don't even do any literal physical damage anymore.
While #10 Sahaquiel posed greater danger than Ramiel, it was still weaker, as its descent was stopped by a single Eva, and once that happened, it had little offensive or defensive ability left. And #9 Matariel was the weakest angel that was felled by only machine gunfire; it only caused problems because of where the Evas had to fight it. Both Matariel and Sahaquiel could have been killed by a single Eva.
Sahaquiel probably couldn't be defeated by a single Eva actually since it would have eventually broken through anyway, unless it accidentally triggered a Berserk Eva-01. Which can Curbstomp anything "anyway". Minus the whole potentially ending the world in the process thing that it tends to do also...
While threat level varies in Fairy Tail the threat and strength of the more serious villains does increase each time, with lesser villains thrown in between them. This is mostly managed by the characters getting by on strategy, nakama power, of in some cases temporary power ups rather than non-stop training.
Threats thus far are a ordinary dark guild wielding a fairly weak soul sucking demon, a rival turned evil who is on par with one of the main characters and wanted to unseal a similar demon, a rival guild who's master is on par with the Big Good who was trying to put Fairy Tail out of business, An old friend turned evil who was on par with the Big Good and wanted to revive Zeref (this is when all threats start to guarantee death), One of the larger dark guilds who wanted to start a guild war, a foreign king who had no powers beyond a Humongous Mecha who was willing to kill the guild for their magic, then a former guild member and his new, serious dark guild who easily Curb Stomped the Big Good and were trying to create a world where only 10% of the population could survive. Then there's also the black dragon of the apocalypse who the entire main and supporting cast can't put a scratch on and only leaves once it assumes they're dead. The most recent arc seems to be toning it back down with a government official who only wants one guild member, supposedly for the sake of the country at the cost of her life.
Somewhat averted in The Prince of Tennis. Many of the earlier rivals are good enough to keep up with Seigaku throughout the manga. Fudomine and Yamabuki, who are faced in the District and Prefectural Tournament respectively on, make it all the way to the nationals. Seigaku's arch rival Hyotei is faced in the very first Kanto Tournament Match. However, they prove to be Seigaku's strongest opponents after Rikkai and get faced again. Later opponents such as Shitenhouji have good players, but are defeated relatively easily compared to the "two loss three win" formula against Hyotei and Rikkaidai.
S1: Naga, an egomaniac Bakugan whose plot is to absorb the power of the core of the Bakugan homeworld and conquer the universe.
S2: King Zenoheld and the Vexos. Zenoheld rules a planet and finally goes Ax-Crazy and tries to destroy the universe, creating a Bakugan actually capable of doing so. Despite being strong enough to beat Naga, they've got to get a few upgrades to be able to beat them.
S3: Emperor Barodius and the Gundalians. Are already on the winning side of a war with a peaceful planet and decides to invade Earth for kicks. Once again, the power that was able to defeat Zenoheld isn't enough to beat his forces and more upgrades are needed.
S4: Mag Mel has yet to show his actual power, but considering he's Sealed Evil in a Can that was imprisoned for actually committing genocide, it's a safe bet.
Now that he has, it's been confirmed, with still more upgrades needed to face his strongest forces although technically he could simply be considered the same Big Bad but with new tricks, as he's actually what Barodius became after his defeat...
Played a bit with in Slayers. The first major enemy Lina fights is the Nigh Invulnerable Rezo the Red Priest, who happens to have a fragment of the world's Demon God sealed inside of him. Said Demon God is the most powerful of all evil creatures in the world, so, that's it right? Nothing can challenge Lina? Wrong. Oh, so wrong. The next major enemy Lina fights (in the anime) is a creature that's IMMUNE to magic attacks and has to be taken down in a rather unusual way. The next season has the Demon God's underlings show up and be enemies. Surely they can't be as powerful, right? Wrong. Even though they are less powerful than the Demon God at full power, the underlings are stronger than the fragment that Lina fought against in the first season. In the novels, the Big Bad of season 2 manages to freaking TANK the incomplete Giga Slave and managed to fight The Lord of Nightmares to a draw, though that was justified in that the Lord of Nightmares was in Lina's body and did not have access to her full power. Season 3 had a combined Demon God and God fusion from another world that needed a specific kind of spell to take him out. Season 4 had the same immune to magic enemy from season 1, though this one had no human controlling him, thus was actually stronger. Season 5 brought back the Demon God fragment from season 1, but this one had more control over the human host and was able to use more of his power. If said Demon God from Season 1 had been at full power, that is, completely consumed the human host, Lina would not be able to kill him.
Holyland: The first enemies Yuu fights are usually generic punks who know a bit of streetfighting. He starts coming up against more experienced fighters with genuine training in various disciplines. Eventually, he has to face prodigies and pros in combat-tested styles like kickboxing and Mixed Martial Arts.
It is briefly averted in the Jet Black Wedding Arc, where the suitors, despite their powerful abilities called Styles are nowhere near the level of Ajimu, the aforementioned Physical God or Kumagawa.
Each of the Zoids manga/anime has its own sorting algorithm of evil.
In Zoids: Chaotic Century, it goes in order of Saber Tiger to Geno Saurer to Death Stinger to Berserk Fury, with minor antagonists sprinkled inbetween.
In the anime, it went Saber Tiger, Geno Saurer, Death Saurer, Geno Breaker, Death Stinger, and Ultimate Death Saurer.
Zoids: New Century gave us the Elephander, and then the Berserk Fury, with lesser antagonists sprinkled inbetween.
Zoids: Fuzors went in order of the Buster Fury, Matrix Dragon, Energy Liger, Gairyuki and Seismosaurus as its primary antagonists.
Zoids: Genesis started off with the Bio Megaraptor, then the Bio Tricera, Bio Volcano and Bio Tyranno.
To Aru Majutsu no Index is rather guilty of this. While not every villain is more powerful than the last, the Big Bads have become successively more powerful, to the point that currently there are multiple characters who are stronger than God.
Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro both demonstrates and subverts this trope. While the important bosses continue to increase in difficulty, the entire series takes place while the titular character continues to grow weaker. It is shown later in the series that two characters of similar strength, fighting at different times, have different levels of difficulty.
Batman: Year One reintroduces The Detective as being principally concerned with cleaning up Gotham City's mobster problem; its nominal sequels such as The Man Who Laughs, The Long Halloween and Dark Victory concern the gradual emergence and rise of the supervillain threat, and by the end of Halloween and Victory nearly all the principal mobsters are either incarcerated or dead, and the supervillains have taken over. Afterwards, though, this trope is zig-zagged and subverted since, while Batman does deal with global, even genocidal villains as his career moves on, and as part of the Justice League takes on intergalactic menaces and otherworldly threats, those same supervillains still pose as much or even more trouble for him as they ever have, though under Grant Morrison there was / is a tendency to make the city-based threats part of larger international conspiracies, to the point where prior to the lastest Cosmic Retcon Batman had decided to start his own multinational crimefighting franchise to tackle crime everywhere.
A subtle example occurs in Spider-Girl with the villains Earthshaker, Mr. Abnormal, and Killerwatt. All three of them were defeated by Spider-Girl early in the first series, and don't reappear for several years real-time. When they finally reappear, they've been drafted to serve in a government super-team, but do a pretty poor job of it. While they were credible threats to Spider-Girl early in her career, their ineffectiveness is now lampshaded by everyone from Carnage to Agent Maria Hill of SHIELD to Spider-Girl herself.
Warren Ellis' run on The Authority consisted to 3 four-issue storylines. In the 1st, they fight a supervillain. In the 2nd, they fight an alternative Earth. And in the 3rd they fight what could be described as God. When Mark Millar then took over the writing, he went back to various kinds of supervillains again.
Averted in Les Légendaires; the first pages of book 1 reveal that the protagonists have already defeated their Arch-Enemy Darkhell before the story even begins for the reader. He comes back... 2 volumes later, and he remained the biggest treat they had to face for 7 books, to the point the Bigger Bad had to be a God of Evil in order to actually overshadow him.
During his tenure as the writer for The Avengers, Jim Shooter pitted the team against a series of progressively more powerful and more dangerous opponents, all of whom had powers that bordered on invincibility. They faced the genetically enhanced Atlantean Tyrak (who had superhuman strength), the robot Ultron (who was equipped with an "encephalo-ray" which could place his enemies in a death-like state and possessed an indestructible adamantium body), the mad scientist Graviton (who had the ability to control one of the fundamental forces of the universe), Count Nefaria (a Flying Brick), and eventually Korvac (a would-be warlord from the 31st century who had obtained godlike powers by absorbing part of the Power Cosmic from Galactus's abandoned starship). The first four typically took down Thor and Wonder Man (the strongest members of the team) with a single attack, while Korvac actually managed to kill the entire team in battle before being driven to despair by the apparent betrayal of his similarly cosmically-empowered wife and restoring the team to life with his final breath.
Films — Animated
The Kung Fu Panda films play this straight with their main antagonists. Tai Lung, despite being powerful enough to defeat both the Furious Five and Master Shifu, is still only one guy and his focus is solely on the Dragon Scroll, making him a complete non-issue to anyone outside the Valley of Peace (at least in the short term). Then comes Lord Shen, who controls a powerful army and seeks nothing less than to conquer all of China. He's not as physically strong or skilled as Tai Lung, but he's a far greater threat.
Films — Live-Action
Subtly toyed with in Point Blank — the hero keeps killing his way up the chain of command without truly getting anywhere.
Pirates of the Caribbean began with the enemies being a crew of cursed undead pirates. The second movie had them facing against the mythological Davy Jones. The third was a battle royal against Davy Jones and the entire East India Company navy, with the God of the Ocean thrown in for good measure. Good thing they had the Pirate council and Elizabeth Took a Level in Badass.
The Lord of the Rings breaks from the trope, with the power level of the foes waxing and waning. For example, the first few villains they face are the supernatural Nazgűl, a hulking cave troll, and Saruman's super-orc Uruk-Hai. In the second film they face mostly rank-and-file orcs. In the third, however, the Nazgűl come back with tougher mounts, the colossal mumakill appear, the king of the Nazgűl shows up, and Aragorn has to duel an armored troll.
The Karate Kid series has a pattern in which he must use a new technique that the previous final boss proves immune to, thus suggesting that each opponent is tougher than the previous.
Each of the Terminator sequels introduced a more advanced Terminator model as the antagonist. There are plot reasons for this, since Skynet is sending Terminators back into the past from increasingly later points in the future, thus the models are stronger than the previous ones.
The T-X in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines combines the best traits of both previous models, being a Super Tough solid Terminator skeleton with a liquid metal shapeshifter skin. It also has an in-built plasma cannon in one of its arms, and can hack into most mechanical systems and operate them remotely. The odds are tipped even more in the machines' favor, since the friendly T-850 fully admits that it's a depleted model compared to the T-X.
Terminator Salvation, as it's set during the future Robot War, showcases Skynet's entire army, with numerous models of different designs, including gigantic Harvester mechs, regular warriors, and infiltrator prototypes. The movie does play it both ways however, since while the Terminator threat is larger than ever, the Terminators themselves actually seem less efficient than in previous movies because they uncharacteristically hold back during fights due the protagonists' Plot Armor.
In the first Alien film, just one alien manages to kill off all but one crew member of the Nostromo, Ripley. In Aliens, she has to face a colony of them, including their Queen. Then averted in Alienł, which like the first in the series has only a single alien menacing our protagonists, in addition to a Queen embryo maturing in Ripley's thorax. And finally played half-straight in Alien: Resurrection when a colony of them is being faced again, but this one consists of no more than 12 individuals in addition to their Queen, as well as some sort of alien-human hybrid in the end. However, between their low numbers and how badass Ripley has become, a lot if not most of the tension was unfortunately lost.
Subverted in 300. After his first wave of Mooks fails, God-King Xerxes sends his best troops, the Immortals, to kill the Spartans. While the Immortals make quite a few casualties among the Spartans, it ultimately fails because, as the narrator claims, the Spartans were not yet weakened by fatigue.
The Dark Knight Saga makes use of this trope, with each main villain becoming more competent. Alluded to in The Dark Knight where the first time we see Batman he handily arrests Scarecrow. In addition, the first two movies have Gotham City at risk of losing hope or sanity. The third movie has the city at risk of every person in it dying.
Batman Begins has Batman first fight the mob, then Scarecrow and his fear toxin and finally Batman must defeat Ra'salGhul who nearly drives all of Gotham insane with fear toxin, before Batman defeats his army and leaves Ra's to die.
Then in The Dark Knight, The Joker manages to put all of Gotham into panic without the vast resources and army that Ra's al Ghul had in Batman Begins and creates another villain, Two-Face, by causing Harvey Dent to become a Fallen Hero. The Joker also nearly succeeds in making Gotham lose all hope.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane at first seems to be just a robber who attack the stock market. Very quickly, Bane is shown to be a huge threat, especially when he defeats Batman and traps him in a prison halfway around the world. After that, Bane forcibly takes over Gotham for months, and is secretly working with TaliaalGhul. Both want revenge for Ra's death, and want it by nuking Gotham.
Hey, they didn't do too badly. They made a forced entry into a directly opposed chokepoint and wiped out the rebel crew with about 3 casualties. It's only when trying to shoot the heroes that they suck abominably.
Used briefly in the first Gamera series. In Gamera vs. Gyaos, Gamera takes the entire film to kill Gyaos. Then, for Gamera vs. Guiron, Guiron is introduced as he's effortlessly killing a Space Gyaos. This wasn't entirely intentional on the filmmaker's part, as they'd originally intended for Space Gyaos' role to be filled by a completely different, new kaiju—they only reused the Gyaos costume because they couldn't make the new monster in time.
The opposition in Legion gets increasingly stronger: Old lady > an ice cream man (bummer) > about 100 angels > another 500 angels > an uber angel.
Justified in Pacific Rim. The first Kaiju to arrive on Earth are scouts sent to cause as much mayhem as possible. Once humanity began to show resistance, the Precursors responded by sending more advanced and larger Kaiju to deal with the Jaegers. And once the plan of wiping out all Jaegers succeeded, an extermination wave of deadly Kaiju would come to destroy humanity once and for all.
Oddly subverted in the Lone Wolf gamebooks, then played straight. Lone Wolf actually manages to kill two of the Darklords in the first five books; each was the leader of the Darklords at the time of their deaths. Later, Lone Wolf goes on to fight more powerful opponents. Book 12 justifies the subversion by stating that the Darklords are severely weakened by clean air; they could only fight at full strength in utterly corrupted environments. After the Darklords are defeated, the trope is played straight, as Lone Wolf's victory managed to piss off Naar, the god that created the Darklords in the first place.
A literary example comes from the Lensman series of novels, which worked up from interplanetary gangsters to an evil older than the formation of the solar system whose goal was domination of all intelligent life in the universe. These books justified the algorithm by revealing in each book that the Big Bad of this book was The Man Behind the Man of last book's Big Bad. Then again, the nesting that would be present in the beginning is somewhat mind-boggling. note The prologue of the first book describes it. This is a retcon. The original Lensman series consisted of Galactic Patrol, Gray Lensman, Second Stage Lensman, and Children of the Lens, all originally published in Astounding Stories magazine. In this version, the Eddorians weren't revealed as The Men Behind the Men Behind the Men Behind the Men until the last set of stories. When E. E. “Doc” Smith sold the rights to a book publisher, his editor felt the lack of foreshadowing made the series a bit silly and asked Smith to write a prequel introducing the Eddorians from the beginning. Smith took an old, unrelated novel of his, Triplanetary, added the prologue and tweaked the plot to fit the Lensman universe. He then wrote First Lensman to bridge Triplanetary with the original series.
Harry Potter. Voldemort starts off as a powerless relic of his former glory in the first book and slowly works his way back up to Big Bad over the course of the series. Thus, the threat Harry faces grows without the villain changing. Voldemort also tries to defy this trope at Harry's birth: he set out himself to destroy him. Scar ha ha.
Justified in the Honor Harrington series. The People's Navy starts out the war with Manticore commanded by a bunch of inept bureaucrats and politically-appointed admirals, but the Committee of Public Safety's coup kicks most of the garbage out of the system and allows the best Havenite admirals to rise to the top...in a purge that also happens to remove their most experienced admirals before they ever come into play. They also implement a system that prevents their best admirals from showing any strategic initiative, including commissars with the authority to override admirals and executions for anyone who fails "pour encourager les autres". It isn't until Esther McQueen becomes Secretary of War and reorganizes the system that they manage any significant strategic victories. When Thomas Theisman overthrows Chairman Saint-Just and restores the original Republic, the State Sec apparatus and political commissars are cleared out entirely, and the finest generals Haven has available can use whatever means they have at their disposal to fight the war with everything they learned in the first war. The second war does not start out well for Manticore.
Advertising copy for The Ghost King, R.A. Salvatore's 2009 Drizzt novel: "When the Spellplague ravages Faerun, Catti-brie falls into a deathlike trance, taking Regis with her. Drizzt, with the most unlikely ally of all at his side, seeks the help of Cadderly — the hero of the recently reissued series The Cleric Quintet. But even as his beloved's life hangs by a thread, Drizzt finds himself facing his most powerful and elusive foe, the twisted Crenshinibon, the demonic Crystal Shard he believed had been destroyed years ago. And the dragon he thought was destroyed along with it. And the mind flayer. And the seven liches that created the Crystal Shard in the first place. All in one godlike entity that calls itself the Ghost King." To calibrate the algorithm, it is the last book in R.A. Salvatore's eighth Forgotten Realms series. But then, Drizzt is a D&D hero, with complete stats - and quite strong enough to face a squid thingy and a dragon and a group of liches.
Intially played straight in the The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, but later Averted. After fighting an evil wizard with more ambition and enjoyment for kicking puppies than actual power or brains in the 1st book, Harry Dresden fights werewolves, ghosts, vampires and the faerie queens by the 4th book... and back down to vampires in the 6th. While there's plenty of fighting and Harry and the other protagonists are powerful in their own ways, the drama generally comes from scheming and Harry's personal stake in the matter. The faeries in Proven Guilty would have been no problem for Harry even back in book 1, but the problem was that now he had to handle the person who summoned them as well.
Also, the most dangerous antagonists are not always the ones with the greatest raw power. Villains like Nicodemus and Mavra are significant threats not because of their admittedly considerable powers, but because they are cunning, patient, and pragmatic. Tactics and Flaw Exploitation win out over brute force more often than not.
In the Codex Alera also by Jim Butcher, the Vord have this as a superpower, which when coupled with the raw intellect of their Queens is just as scary as it sounds. Even though the Vord are defeated in the early books, this just taught the Queen new tricks to use to modify future generations of her children, so that when they come back they're far more formidable. The only way to stop the Vord for good without this happening seems to be to kill the Queen.
Also played generally straight in Alera with the three successive invading forces. The Marat are Proud Warrior Race Guy barbarian elves who are very individually formidable but don't really have the logistics to take and hold much of Alera; it also turns out that it's mostly one particularly bloodthirsty leader who wants them fighting Alera in the first place, and once he's removed other leaders are willing to talk things out. Next, the Canim are highly disciplined, technologically advanced wolfmen who succeed in waging a prolonged war along the Aleran coast- at least until it turns out they're only there to try and escape from the even more formidable enemy that assaulted their homeland, which turns out to be the Vord, mentioned above, who nearly destroy the world.
Generally averted in J. R. R. Tolkien's works- the supernatural powers of evil tend to get weaker, not stronger, as the timeline advances. The supernatural powers of good also get weaker, however (or at least less accessible) in accord with the general transition of Middle-Earth from a mythological world to a more realistic one. If you start with The Hobbit and then go to The Lord of the Rings, however, it's played straight, going from the Big Bad being a dragon (dangerous on his own to be sure, but lacking minions or the ambition to range far from home without proper incentive) to an Evil Overlord with world-conquering ambition.
Although at the very end of The Lord of the Rings, the heroes have to face one last battle: a handful of bandits in the Shire. After the climax and death of Sauron, this seems comparatively petty.
Although, at the same time this is also sort of inverted: DomDaniel was actually the most powerful villain faced in the series, being an ultra-powerful undead sorcerer trying to conquer the world, but due to being mostly killed before the series started, he has little of his old power and has to act through his less-capable apprentices. Etheldredda and Fume were not only ghosts, but were also just ordinary jerks acting on petty grudges who happened to have found great powers. Finally, the true villain of Darke was actually Merrin Meredith, a Butt Monkey and Joke Character, who had happened to find a source of Darke power, but ultimately was just a childish, nasty loser.
The Skulduggery Pleasant series plays this straight for the first three books, and zig-zags it for the rest of the series: Mevolent, the overlord of evil mages who was supposedly the biggest threat the magic world had faced so far, died long before the series began. The villain of the first book, Nefarian Serpine, was just one of his lieutenants, but was also extremely dangerous and managed to get his hands on a source of godlike power. Then came the second of the three lieutenants, Baron Vengeous, who explicitly invokes this trope when Skulduggery claims that if Serpine was a 10/10 on the scale of evil, Vengeous was an 11. The third book Double Subverts this by at first setting up the villain as a trio of Mevolent's minor officers who's leader doesn't even have magic, but then the Faceless Ones, the villains that all the other villains were serving, who are powerful enough to destroy human civilization as easy as stepping on an ant colony, show up. The fourth and fifth books abruptly subvert the Algorithm by putting the heroes up against a gang of minor villains who are out for revenge and a swarm of evil ghosts with Demonic Possession abilities, and then the sixth book plays it straight by including no less than three supervillains with the capacity to destroy the world. And the next villain is...an ordinary mage and some ordinary psychos he recruited...who has a machine that turns him into the most powerful mage in the entire world. So yeah, the series plays with this trope a lot.
The Laundry Files both inverts this and plays it straight, since the villains get progressively less powerful but progressively more dangerous. The villain of the first book was a cosmic-scale Eldritch Abomination that eats universes, but it ended up being defeated without causing any damage to our universe, and without a single casualty. The next villain was an insane millionaire with vast resources trying to reactivate an ancient biological superweapon, both of whom ended up dying before they could do anything beyond killing a few people. Then there was a fairly generic cult of (mostly) ordinary people, who cause the hero far more suffering than any other threat so far, and come within a hairsbreadth of killing him and summoning a demon to destroy the world, necessitating a full-out military operation to defeat, AND they had already horribly murdered countless people. The latest villain was a Sinister Minister and his Corrupt Church, armed only with money, religious fervor, and a few Puppeteer Parasites...who pretty much took over a large chunk of Colorado and tried to summon one of the most powerful and evil forces in the universe and (partially) SUCCEEDED.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer generally had a far more dangerous Big Bad each season than the last. Good thing Adam didn't show up in season 1. By the end Buffy faces the personified root of all evil. The entire series is a coming of age story and the threats get bigger as they increase in metaphoric resonance with being grown-up.
Also subverted in Season 6. In contrast to demon-god Glory, The Trio does little to stir the Scooby Gang until the latter half of the season. Still, Warren does succeed in killing Tara, even if by accident, which serves as the catalyst to awaken Dark Willow, who comes dangerously close to destroying the Earth.
If you consider the Big Bad of each season as the character that causes the most suffering to the Scoobies, then Willow is the Big Bad for Season 6, hands down, being the primary cause of the majority of the suffering endured by all the Scoobies, including herself.
Power Rangers usually uses this, with the villains choosing to create/summon progressively stronger monsters as the season goes on and the Rangers grow stronger. Justified somewhat in Jungle Fury where the Big Bad is a recently released sealed evil who has lost much of his power, and thus grows stronger throughout the season much as the heroes do. Also justified in RPM (which is superb at justifying, or at least lampshading, standard Power Rangers tropes) with the assertion that the evil Venjix computer virus is developing increasingly advanced technology over time. The early Power Rangers monsters relied on their quirks as opposed to raw power and strength. That explains why they were at the front.
In the first few seasons before they decided on their Discard and Draw style, the main Big Bads were like this. They fight Rita for a seasons, seeing her as the worst evil in the Galaxy, then season 2 comes in, and Zordon says "Forget her, Lord Zedd is worse." Season 3 would introduce Rita's father, Master Vile, who is even worse than him.
Stargate Verse: At first glance it might even seem like the Stargate Program was responsible for Earth being attacked by the Goa'uld — Earth being safely ignored by them until the SGC used the Stargate and wound up killing Ra. However, if the stargate had never been dug up in the first place, then humanity would never have (re)discovered the Goa'uld until humans discovered FTL travel on their own probably hundreds of years from now... and the Goa'uld would probably have been out there waiting for them. So in the case of the overall series' problem itself, the SGC didn't create the villain, just drew their attention prematurely.
Stargate SG-1 started with Apophis. When they finally got rid of him, even stronger Goa'uld showed up. But that's okay, the team got good at dispatching Goa'uld. So Anubis shows up, with the full knowledge of the godlike beings who had created the stargates. But they took care of him — though it was a close one. For almost a whole month there is peace. Then the godlike Ori turn up.
This progression is grounded in the plot by Tok'ra. He says that every time the Tau'ri defeat a System Lord an even worse one inevitably takes his or her place. By killing Ra, and others, SG-1 kept disrupting the Goa'uld balance of power, allowing more aggressive Goa'uld to sweep up now-leaderless forces and rise in threat level. They didn't cause Anubis, but probably sped up his timetable. They did make the Replicators more dangerous, by giving the nanotech precursor of the Replicators to the Asgard, from whom it was then captured. A self-application of Stop Helping Me!, the Ori only found out about the Milky Way galaxy when Daniel Jackson and Vala accidentally warped over to their home galaxy and caused a scene. An unfortunate coincidence, perhaps, but still their doing.
The Stargate Atlantis team woke up the Wraith and turned on the Asurans' hostility switch. Nice Job Breaking It, Hero indeed. The last episode of Atlantis was essentially the concept of when the villains skip a few levels past where the heroes are expecting.
The first season finale of Heroes has Molly tell us at point-blank range that there is another, much bigger bad than Sylar, who hasn't shown up yet. It turns out that the one Molly's scared of isn't even the Big Bad of Season 2; just the disciple of someone nastier... Adam Monroe, arguably the primary founder of The Company. However, in contrast to Sylar (a power-stealer with a dozen different ways to murder you), Adam is simply an extremely cunning and manipulative man who's very good at getting people to do what he wants. Oh, and who's also got a Healing Factor that makes him nigh-immortal.
Also, the algorithm looks to be subverted as of the second season finale: Big Bad Adam becomes Sealed Evil in a Can again, and his successor appears to be none other than Sylar.
Volume 3 had Arthur Petrelli, a power-draining Evil Overlord who (after stealing all of Peter's abilities) was essentially a walking Physical God.
Out the window with Volume 4, where the Big Bad is a non-powered government agent who leads SWAT teams with dart guns. Then again, Sylar's helping them...
Volume 5 has Samuel Sullivan, the superhuman Antichrist, whose Earthbending ability is powered by the number of followers he has and who, with enough followers, is strong enough to crack the Earth in half.
Generally speaking, apart from volume 2 and 5, it hasn't mattered who the Big Bad is, given Sylar's tendency to hijack the plot. This was rumoured to supposed to happen in volume 2 as well, but the season was left unfinished due to the 2007 writer's strike.
24: The first season is about Drazen's personal vendetta against Jack and Palmer. The second is about a threatened nuclear attack on Los Angeles. This escalates to a successful nuclear attack at the beginning of Season 6. The trope is used within individual seasons as well. In season 1, the main antagonists of the first few hours are a pair of college kids, followed by a local gangster, and building all the way up to a very well-funded international terrorist group, plotting for the release of an ex-dictator with the help of a group of heavily-armed mercenaries. And it happens from season to season, with the Big Bad of season four actually working for the Big Bad of season five, with that Big Bad working for a minor villain in season six... and as it turns out, most of those villains were actually working for the Big Bad of season seven.
P Layed with on Charmed, which actually followed a Bell Curve of Evil. At first, the villains grew progressively more powerful, from warlocks, to demons, to the Source of All Evil himself. Once the Source of All Evil was blown to bits three times over halfway through the show's run things went a bit downhill. Later Big Bads included a Well-Intentioned Extremist angel, the Source's slightly less powerful rival, and finally the show's last Big Bad were the heroine's Evil Counterparts, who were roughly at the same power level they were.
Reversed on Mission: Impossible, largely as a result of plot decay. While in the first few seasons the IMF went up against international terrorists, tyrannical dictators, and the Red Menace, later seasons mostly found them up against the Mob.
In the first season of LOST, the villains are mainly unseen: the monster in the pilot, then Ethan, about whom not much is known. The main antagonist is arguably "the unknown". The second and third seasons are more about the Others. The fourth season introduced the freighties, who made the Others look more like the "good guys" they've always claimed to be. The fifth season introduced the series' true Big Bad, the immortal, pure evil Man in Black, aka The Monster. His only hindrance was that he couldn't kill the heroes directly, but he racked up a huge body count during the final season and made even master manipulator Ben look weak and powerless.
The new series of Doctor Who does this with their season finales. In Series 1, a far future Earth is invaded by Daleks. In the second, present day Earth is invaded first by Cyberman and then by the Daleks. In Series 3, the Master's invasion of modern day Earth turns it into a dystopian wasteland. In Series 4, Davros threatens the disintegration of all universes in all of reality. Since the writers were already forced to resort to Deus ex Machina in the very first season, it makes you wonder about the wisdom of this upping of the threat. The first season led by Steven Moffat upped the threat again, with all the universes being threatened of having never existedin the first place, by a still unrevealed Big Bad.
Farscape had an odd way of upping the ante each season while making old villains "join the team". First season had Captain Bialar Crais pursuing the protagonists with his one warship. At the end of the first season, Crais is usurped by Scorpius, a rival commander of the Peacekeeper force, and Crais becomes an increasingly trustworthy ally over the next two seasons. By the start of the fourth season, Scorpius is on the outs due to being spectacularly humiliated by the heroes and the machinations of the more politically powerful Commandant Grayza, so he starts to hitch rides and help out the heroes, although he remains much more evil than Crais. The fourth season then does a switch half-way through and makes the evil reptilian Scarrans the main bad guys, supplanting the Peacekeepers for top evil.
Supernatural: Seasons 1-2 initially had the Yellow-Eyed Demon as the Big Bad, who gets replaced by the more powerful Lilith in seasons 3-4, and then by the Devil himself in season 5. Lampshaded, along with Villain Pedigree, near the end of season five when Sam asks Dean if he remembers when they just fought things like wendigos. When it comes to the big bads, the usual downside of the Man Behind the Man structure is averted, as the lower-ranking villain usually has to free the higher-ranking villain before they can step in. Yellow-Eyes released Lilith, who went on to release Lucifer. In all, the writers are kind of shameless in using this trope. A brief timeline of the show's enemies by season:
In season 1, the Winchesters were fighting regular monsters since way back when Demons were introduced as the ultimate evil that could only be killed by the Colt. The first mini-boss was Meg, a low-ranking manager, and the first Big Bad was a high ranking demon, who doesn't die until the end of season 2.
Season 3 introduces Lilith, the highest-ranking demon of them all, but also a magic knife that one-shots any demon that isn't a Big Bad, meaning that by this time, formerly invincible/immortal demons of Meg's rank or sometimes higher would routinely get one-shotted before they can say a full sentence.
In season 4, we're introduced to angels, who are at the time understood to be the most powerful beings in the universe other than God Himself, and it's outright stated that nothing can kill them except another angel.
By season 5, this trope into overdrive as humans are killing angels wholesale with a different magic knife. It even gets to the point where Sam and Dean can kill low-level gods with relative ease.
Season 6 subverted this trope somewhat, but "the mother of all monsters" is still pretty high-ranking. A corrupted angel ascends to becoming a Physical God at the end, but he quickly loses his powers because his virtual omnipotence was too much of a Story Breaker Power.
Season 7 introduced the Leviathans as beings so powerful and dangerous that God locked them away in purgatory to stop them from killing angels. Though this is mostly an Informed Ability because as it turns out, the Leviathans are pretty weak, routinely getting killed by detergent, thus inverting the trope.
By season 8 the show's writers clearly became aware of this problem after the Lucifer arc, so while angels are still getting killed by the thousands off-screen, this trope seems to have slowed down.
The Kamen Rider series is no stranger to this trope. In Kamen Rider Kuuga the villainous Gurongi are a warrior race with a strong class system. It is only honorable that a fight must start with the weakest and after they're finished the next strongest group takes their turn.
Kamen Rider Double also pulls this off, but in twist. The Sonozakis don't take on Double one by one, but instead, someone else with ties to the family. One of those ties being in a relationship with Saeko, one of the family members.
In Kamen Rider Fourze, the first half of the series revolves around the baddies trying to find potential candidates into becoming one of their own (labelled as a "Horoscope"). One of the main villains gets the power to identify who can evolve from a normal Zodiarts into a Horoscope faster, and so, normal Zodiarts are gone, replaced by Horoscopes as MOTW.
This varies from game to game, but the standard Dungeons and Dragons setting doesn't really have a Big Bad per se. Instead the characters are assumed to be adventurers going on adventure after adventure with no real connection between them, and it makes sense they choose adventures that match their abilities. Being a Tabletop RPG each group is free to play this trope straight, subvert it, avert it, or whatever they choose.
The Necrons in Warhammer 40,000 do this in reaction to strong attacks. If the scouting parties the Necrons send first fail, they send another more powerful one, than another and another till all resistance is dead. Since the Necrons are a race of undead machines, and they are the most advanced in the galaxy, they have yet to meet resistance that would warrant awaking their more powerful weapons of war.
Final Fantasy II uses this trope. If you go directly from town A to town B, you'll have the right level of enemies to face. Unfortunately, they forgot to tell you how to get there without wandering, and lined both sides of the path with high-level enemies, leading to slight missteps to be fatal.
Final Fantasy X has a somewhat inverted example of this. After reaching the Calm Lands, if one wanted to go backwards and attempt to fight some easier monsters, they're only able to go to the Thunder Plains. Attempt to go any further than this, and you'll find some people who are very annoyed about your previous actions in the game, and sic a horrifically powerful enemy on you, that will devastate you at that stage of the game. It's impossible to have anything even close to a chance of beating it until the end of the game.
Final Fantasy XII has a few major exceptions to the trope. Many of the early stages have extremely powerful enemies wandering around that eclipse the normal small fry. A normally leveled party at this point has absolutely no chance against them. note A few determined level grinders choose to go after them anyway, for the experience they give makes it very easy to reach level 50 before even fighting the first boss.
Invoked in Final Fantasy XIII. Barthandalus and the other Sanctum fal'Cie want the heroes to get strong enough to kill Orphan and destroy Cocoon, so they carefully controlled what Sanctum military forces went up against them, making sure the protagonists never fought anything that would outright destroy them, instead giving them just enough of a threat to strengthen them.
Played straight in Baldur's Gate. Your character is targeted by assassins. It starts with some mooks who pose no threat to even a 1st level character, then a moderately powerful spellcaster note Who approaches your party in the middle of the street, loudly boasting that he is a master assassin, and proceeding to engage all of you and the guards all at once. Too Dumb to Live. And so on, until you finally meet the godlike Big Bad himself and easily dispatch him with all the loot and experience you've taken from his minions. The reward for killing you grows over time, attracting higher-level assassins. Also averted: the games allow you to wander wherever you want, and some of the starting areas are directly adjacent to areas with creatures that can kill low-level characters in one shot. It's also averted in the very beginning. The Big Bad hunts you down personally and your foster father pulls a You Shall Not PassHeroic Sacrifice to give you the chance to escape.
Averted in the MMORPG City of Heroes, Paragon City is divided in many different zones, each of which has its own difficulty level. But except for a few limited-access areas, characters can go (and possibly die) anywhere they want in the city. Most MMORPGs are structured like this; the only thing stopping a low-level character from reaching high-level areas are the powerful monsters. The sorting algorithm is there, just pointed out as how you should do things, not enforced. Typically, the very high-level areas are an inordinately long walk from the low-level areas, or behind a locked door for which the key is easily acquired on the high-level side, in order to at least suggest the intended progression. However, not always: the Forsaken starting area in World of Warcraft contains a mid-level dungeon in one corner, and is directly adjacent to one of the max-level areas, with some helpful NPCs hanging around to tell new players not to go past; and the Blood Elf and Night Elf starting regions aren't much better.
The PC game Vivisector: Beast Inside has this in abundance: the animalistic enemies are faced based on their level of feralness and anthropomorphism. The Human enemies also get stronger as the game goes on. In a subversion, though, the final leg of the game contains "unfinished" versions of the animal enemies that are pathetically weak and easy to take out..
Strangely included in Final Liberation: even if the game allows the player to get stronger units and a better army as he wins battles, the opposing forces will always have the same overall level as the player's army.
The otherwise-excellent The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion shows us why this trope is useful because it lacks it and by doing so is less enjoyable. Monsters power is scaled to yours: you never have to run in terror from an overwhelming threat or carefully plan the takedown of a challenging monsters. All monsters are similar at all times. There is little sense of accomplishment in levelling up and one can complete the game's main quest while remaining at level 1. Worse, some patterns of "leveling up" make you weaker: you must pick the right skills to advance to stay still. In the end, the difficulty slider lets you change your level more than leveling up. The benefit of this system is that as a Wide Open Sandbox the player can go anywhere and do anything without fear of getting smooshed.
Present in NetHack: The game generates enemies of level equal to the average of your level and the current dungeon depth. This avoids Oblivion's "every level is just as tough as you are" while still providing the same progression.
While present in most (if not all) Roguelikes, it's also downplayed in some, such as Dungeon Crawl where there's a chance some of the most powerful enemies in the game will spawn on the first couple of levels of the dungeon, and Sigfried who kills more PCs than any other named enemy in the game; or ADOM which can spawn horrifyingly out-of-depth monsters (especially in the Dwarven Halls early in the main dungeon, where the PC can encounter Balors, Ancient dragons, etc.)
Quest for Glory — not so much within episodes but present in the larger arc. For instance, if you attempt to venture into the forest when you first begin Quest For Glory 1, you will almost certainly not escape alive without prior knowledge of its layout. As you acquire skills, equipment, items, and experience, you are soon able to survive the forest during the day — but you still had better stay out of there at night. Even as a top-level player, a nighttime venture in the forest is nigh-suicidal, thereby really giving it a sense of menace. However, as you progress from game to game, enemies as a whole become globally stronger so as to keep up the challenge. A Quest For Glory 1 character imported into Quest For Glory 4, for instance, would probably be killed from the suspense alone. note Imports are boosted to a minimum skill level, which helps but not that much. The freaking bunny will probably pose a challenge to an imported character.
Super Smash Bros Brawl. The story mode begins against the robotic Ancient Minister, then onto the Nintendo villains, led by Ganondorf and Bowser, then the series' perennial antagonist Master Hand and finally Tabuu, ruler of Subspace.
Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance Early in the game, your group is not seen as a big threat. You start in independent countries that the bad guys have less control in. After you make it to enemy territory, a knight questions why Ashnard is spreading his force so thin near the end of the game. Ashnard's response is that he's fascinated by the strength of the group and it's implied he wants to personally fight the strongest force possible. Also, he's just plain vanilla crazy.
In the endgame of the sequel, Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, You fight a politician who was blessed by a goddess. Then you fight the Black Knight, who has also been blessed. Next, you fight an army of dragons led by their king, Dheginsea, who in addition to being blessed is also an ancient being who helped defeat the goddess of chaos. Next comes another ancient being who is also blessed by the goddess. Finally, you reach the damn goddess who blessed the bastards from before.
Inverted in Wild ARMs 4. The game seems to follow this trope until you face an ancient demon with total control of space whose lover you just killed. When the enraged demon goes after you, you're only able to kill her because she expends too much energy creating and supporting Another Dimensiondesigned to kill your partyand she goes after you again despite her wounds to ensure she takes you out while collapsing the dimension. Her death causes Lambda's strategist to propose a plan to have the remaining Brionac Lieutenants attack the heroes all at once, which gets rejected because The Omniscient Council of Vagueness had other ideas. From that point on, it seems like you fight the Quirky Miniboss Squad in descending levels of power, culminating in a battle against a scientist who just stands there while you wail on him. This is exactly what The Omniscient Council of Vagueness had in mind all along, as they wanted to cull Brionac's numbers so that the surviving members would be easier to keep under their control.
Subverted in Painkiller. While the first boss is a skyscraper-sized undead giant that requires massive amounts of punishment to bring down, the following bosses get successively smaller. Difficulty, however, is still scaled normally until the last boss; the 4th boss is only about King Kong sized, but is the hardest to beat, while the final boss is bigger but turns out to be a pathetically easy Puzzle Boss who can be killed in seconds.
Sam and Max Episodes: each episode's villain was secretly The Man Behind the Man of the previous episode's villain, and would increase in important from local criminals all the way up to President Abraham Lincoln, the Internet itself, and finally the Big Bad himself. Mildly subverted in the end, as the Big Bad was revealed to have been, all along, an annoying recurring secondary character that had appeared throughout the season. Though the first episode villain was acting alone.
Generally played straight in any given Touhou game, ignoring some oddness with midbosses and bonus bosses. Averted for the series as a whole, where there's no particular scaling of villain power or threat.
The final boss fight in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess:Ganondorf goes from gargantuan teleporting boar, to a demon head made of pure energy to a man on horseback who can summon ghost horsemen at will, to a final fight between you and him on foot with swords. But the overall difficulty ramps up: in each successive fight you lose abilities — the ability to turn into a wolf and use Midna's magic, then Zelda's magic, and eventually it's down to you and your sword. And then your fishing rod.
Most Might and Magic games starting with #3 follow the trope. You start the game in the easiest town and the more you move away from this town the harder the game becomes. Might and Magic III had a very tough dungeon, the aptly-named Maze From Hell not too far from the start point but it was locked and could only be entered much later in the game. The trope is completely subverted in Might and Magic VI though. In this game, the starting area has 3 dungeons: Goblin Watch, the starter dungeon; the Abandoned Temple, a slightly harder and longer dungeon meant to be completed next; and Gharik's Forge, one of the most difficult areas in the entire game (possibly the series) and meant for the second half of the game. The Forge is unlocked and the only way to tell it's best left for later is to enter it and watch the entire party get slaughtered within seconds.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant takes this to an extreme. Every time the heroes defeat the apparent Big Bad threatening to destroy the world, a new one appears to, yes, threaten to destroy the world. Somehow it gets softer each time; starting with the threat of demonic global annihilation, and ending with the threat of having the war-torn recent history rewritten into a more peaceful one by the unusually benevolent final Big Bad.
The peak bosses in SSX 3 follow this pattern; The boss of Peak One is arrogant upstart Mac Frasier, followed by the gargantuan, destructive human wrecking ball Nate Logan on Peak Two, and finally Psymon Stark, an unstable musclehead who might be violating his parole by competing, on Peak Three. If you're playing as any of these guys, the peak boss is changed to 11-year old Griff Simmons on Peak One, riot grrrrrrrl Zoe Payne on Peak Two, and megalomaniac egotist Elise Riggs on Peak Three.
Ōkami: Orochi's flunkies, the Spider Queen and Crimson Helm, pose very little trouble, and the Orochi himself is severely weakened after awakening from a 100-year imprisonment. The other major villains are already active presences in the world, but they are likewise diminished and can't regain their power, or even cause harm beyond their immediate area of influence, until they absorb the malevolent Life Energy of their slain brethren... culminating with Yami, Lord of Eternal Darkness, who takes all their evil power unto itself.
Lampshaded in the end of the X-COM: ApocalypseLet's Play: As a bonus, after the game's done, there's a scene with what would've happened had the aliens sent their biggest and baddest ships through first. It's not pretty.
Not just played straight, but formalized in No More Heroes, in which you fight your way up the ranks of the official top ten assassins.
In Pokémon the strength of the trainers and the wild Pokémon are directly proportional to how long it is until you get there. There are some aversions: Both the Viridian and Petalburg Gyms have leaders much stronger than you likely will be when you first get there, but you can't actually battle until you're at the appropriate point in the game (with the Petalburg Gym it's because the leader knows he would just kick your ass entirely otherwise). While the Kanto trainers in GSC/HGSS play this straight in that they're all leveled to be near those of someone who beat the Elite Four (which is handwaved by someone stating Kanto has started attracting a bunch of really strong trainers), the wild Pokémon avert it in that they are the same levels as they were in the first generation of games. Interestingly, the trainers still have Pokémon typical of trainers in those locations in the first game, which means they must have held off on evolving them for dozens of levels.
It's particularly hilarious in Pokémon Black 2 and White 2: in the original Pokémon Black and White, routes 1 and 2 were basically the game's Noob Cave, full of low-level trainers like children and schoolteachers. In the sequel, this area is locked off until the post-game and you can't access it until you beat the champion. Visiting the area after leads to the amusing phenomenon of running to the bunches of little kids with Com Mons... that are so high-level that they could easily curbstomp most of the bosses in the game. It's quite surreal being named Champion, and then promptly getting beaten by a kindergartner with a level 65 Rattata.
Subverted in Tsukihime and its sequels. The power and abilities jump all over the place. Nero Chaos is easily the strongest adversary, much tougher than Roa or any of his opponents so far have been. Satsuki presumably comes after this at some point and doesn't amount to much yet. Then we have Kagetsu Tohya with Nanaya, someone Shiki can't beat, then Kishima Kouma who mainly has the advantage of being Made of Iron. Not much good against Shiki's eyes, though. Wallachia really only seems to be a problem because even Shiki's eyes can't kill him normally. In direct combat he appears to be rather weak.
Inverted in the Japanese version of Wolf Fang, where picking the harder routes will give you an easier final stage, which reflects how much of the enemy forces remain. The final bosses are still very hard.
Prototype: the weapons and gear the Blackwatch are deploying to Manhattan become more and more sophisticated as the infection worsens and they begin to understand and counter both Mercer and the progressing infection's capabilities. Similarly, the infected armies begin to grow in effectiveness as they develop and evolve.
Justified, as Blackwatch is supposed to be low-key, operating behind the scenes with the Marines as the public face of the operation. However, as you play through the game, you'll see fewer and fewer Marines being torn to shreds by you and the Infected and more and more Blackwatch troopers. Which is nice, because the Marines are Punch Clock Villains and giddily skipping over the Moral Event Horizon is practically a requirement to join Blackwatch.
Largely averted in Fallout 1. The game doesn't stop you from wandering anywhere you like right from the beginning, meaning that you could end up encountering enemies that are far too powerful for you to handle. Once the XP and the ammo start rolling in, however, you can tear the world up at your leisure.
Fallout 2 benefits from the trope. The enemy progression is: giant ants and scorpions at first then rats and geckos. The Den will probably see your first human vs. human battle with nearly everyone in leather armor, pistols or SMGs. Vault City will have metal armors and assault rifles. Redding is fairly light but piss off the Salvatores in New Reno and your ass will get lasered — the Sierra Army Depot nearby has various battle robots. If you are evil, Broken Hills will see your first human vs. supermutant battle. The New California Republic has policemen armed with gauss rifles. In gameplay terms, that means ouch. Both the raider hideout and Vault 15 is full of raiders in leather armor and boasting pistols & hunting rifles but three of them has combat armor and assault rifles. Mariposa is a deathtrap full of super mutants armed with laser rifles, flamethrowers, miniguns, you name it. San Francisco is light but Navarro and the Oil Rig are both utterly deadly with every single combatant clad in power armor and boasting energy weapons. Oh, and the Big Bad has 999 HP, a really powerful plasma cannon, a big-ass knife and about a dozen minigun turrets for backup. note Speedrunning the game is hard: you can get to the final battle via San Francisco. But to get there from your starting location, you have to pass near Navarro which is chock full of Enclave soldiers and plasma turrets. Regardless how good you are, chances are very high that you will stumble into at least one Enclave patrol or a pack of Aliens/Floaters/Centaurs/Deathclaws. If this happens at level 2, you should reload immediately since you will be dead in the first turn anyway. Even an experienced character will have trouble here.
The Godfather: The Game tries to encourage you to take on the Tattaglias first, followed by the Straccis and Cuneos, leaving the Barzinis for last. However, due to the Wide Open Sandbox nature and lack of Broken Bridge, it's perfectly okay to take them on in any order if you're skilled enough.
In the first Knights of the Old Republic, you can go through the four planets after Dantooine in any order, so the difficulty actually gets easier. However, after you find the map on the first one, you get to fight a group of bounty hunters (the leader you already vanquished to get that far), after the third you get to fight Malak's apprentice, immediately after that you get to fight a toned-down version of Malak himself, and then you get to fight Malak on full difficulty in the ending sequence.
Skies of Arcadia has a variation: while Lord Galcian is the Big Bad, he isn't the Final Boss. That honor goes to Ramirez, his Dragon. While Ramirez is fanatically devoted to his boss, he's the most powerful of the game's villains.
King of Fighters: the later end bosses tend to be stronger, but there's no consensus on which is the hardest.
Appears in the all of the Tales Series games. You encounter stronger enemies and bosses later in the game, though scripted fights with major villains do occur. There are some accessions, such as in Symphonia and Vesperia, where you would encounter a villain that you wouldn't fight until much later in the game. Another partial-departure with it occurs in Tales of the Abyss, where you will end up repeatedly fighting these bosses called the Six-God-Generals throughout the game, and they get stronger each time.
Played relatively straight in Mass Effect games. In the first game, the initial antagonists are the mechanical Geth and rogue Spectre Saren, whom is eventually revealed to be working for Sovereign, a Reaper, who are Abusive Precursors intent on destroying the galaxy's organic life.
In Mass Effect 2, the Collectors, who are abducting human colonies to build a human-based reaper become the main antagonists. They are controlled by Harbinger, another Reaper]], though most early-game enemies are just mercenaries unrelated to the Collectors. At the end of the game, Harbinger mobilizes hundreds of Reapers, all with a personal vendetta against Shepard, which will presumably need to be dealt with in Mass Effect 3.
Played straight and subverted in Fable II: where the Crucible has a strict progression from Beetles to a huge rock troll, but the Big Bad has a serious glass jaw and can be killed by One friggin' crossbow bolt to the face — or groin, if you prefer.
Averted in Borderlands, where you can easily get your arse handed to you by wandering into the wrong area and finding some high-leveled bandits.
In Sword of the Stars the Von Neumanns follow this. At first all they send are probe motherships that send out lesser drones; deadly to individual destroyers and almost untouchable by missiles, but otherwise lightly armed and not much trouble when you get better weapons. That's when you see Berserkers, which are much more powerful and resilient, able to sweep aside cruisers. If you still manage to prevail against multiple Berserker attacks, they deploy the Construct, which is stronger than even dreadnoughts and can cause an Earth-Shattering Kaboom.
Downplayed in Xenoblade. The mechon mostly follow this, but the enemies found in the overworld can be many levels higher than you, for example level 35 enemies that can be found in the starting area and will all join in to kill you if you try to attack one
Kingdom Hearts has an interesting example. The first game has what appears to be the creator of all Heartless, the embodiment of emotion corrupted. In Chain of Memories we see a preview of much more powerful beings called Nobodies who are the body and mind that's left over after a Heartless is created; then we find out that the main villain of the first game is only 1/3rd of the psycho assistant of the real creator of the Heartless and the villain of this game is the other 2/3rds. All of this goes to imply that the Nobody and that the villain is resembling himself. Then we get Birth by Sleep in which it turns out again the main villain is more than he appears to be; in this case it turns out he used to be a very old powerful keyblade Master who then possesses a much younger keyblade wielder who is then split into the main villains of the first and second game. This all leads into Kingdom Hearts III in which all the previous main antagonists, minus all the side games (unless you count Birth By Sleep a side game) combined into one holy terror of a villain.
Lufia series. You beat Gades, a dark god of destruction, only for you notice there are three more powerful villains out there. In the Sinistrals Boss Rush, it's quite clear Gades is the least powerful mainly because he can't cast powerful spells.
Actually subverted in the end of Arc the Lad 2. After a long and grueling path to kill the four demon Generals trying to free the Big Bad, the final person you encounter is a lowly human monarch with no combat abilities or experience what-so-ever, who is rightly terrified of your party. The demon Generals used him too because The Sealed Evil in a Can can only be released by a human. Later played straight when you have to fight the Big Bad anyway.
Somewhat justified in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. You start out with basic weapons (usually because you've had a Bag of Spilling moment when you almost got killed somehow, or you've just come to the Zone) and armor, but you won't be facing anything more dangerous than a few bandits and a time or the local wildlife for a while. Granted, those are nothing to sneeze at, but later on they're more of a nuisance than a threat (if they're present at all) and you'll be facing heavily armed and armored troops in large numbers.
Done in all the Mario & Luigi games. What's strange here though is that there are many cases of late game areas and early game areas located right next to one another. As in, part of say, the desert is explored at the beginning and part is explored at the end of the game. Given that the enemies are scaled to match this, it means that sometimes you've literally only got a four foot wall between an area with weak enemies and one with strong ones, and no real reason why the latter never seem to cross it.
It's also done interestingly in Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, in that the big enemies Bowser fights are actually weaker than the small ones he usually just crushes underfoot. What this means is that when Mario and Luigi revisit the area later, they find that the small enemies are the ones actually scaled to their current level...
Parodied in EarthBound. During one part of the game, you will need to defeat five moles, each of whom claims to be the third strongest of the moles.
Played with in Opoona. The game has an abundance of both Bosses in Mook Clothing who are far stronger than anything else in their respective area, and enemies who simply have things like a great deal more health than other nearby enemies, so there are often much stronger enemies in an area than their appears. However, the game also likes to pull on enemies from earlier areas, leading to weak and early game enemies suddenly making a reappearance later in the game, no stronger than they were before. (However, they do have a tendency to appear in larger groups.)
Played straight in XCOM: Enemy Unknown with a twist: it's entirely Justified. The aliens start by sending in puny Sectoids who couldn't hit a target if they're standing next to it and gradually work their way up to damage-sponges that can Mind Rape your soldiers into shooting their sqaudmates, while you're upgrading your soldiers to Mind Rape them right back, and that's exactly the point. The Ethereals are searching for a species with the perfect balance between physical fitness and Psychic Powers, and with every successful operation and psionic operative you make, you're only proving your worthiness in their eyes.
Lampshade hung in the first Order of the Stick book Dungeon Crawlin' Fools. The evil lich Xykon orders his minions to be placed throughout the dungeon in order of weakest to strongest as they approach his lair and orders them to be placed in small groups only. He does this expecting to be entertained as he watches the PCs hack their way through the dungeon on his scrying ball. Also, he secretly wants them to reach him. The trope is averted later on: after 600 strips, despite being defeated by an unarmed Fighter and acting like a buffoonish Harmless Villain, Xykon himself proves to be a Not-So-Harmless Villain and remains the most powerful and dangerous foe in the series, with the possible exception of the Monster in the Darkness or the Snarl. Well, the Three Fiends might be more powerful, and are certainly far more cunning, but it's unclear at this stage if they'll take over the role of Big Bad or stay content playing Chessmaster on the side.
As the Dimensional Guardians from the web fiction serial Dimension Heroes continue on their journey, the Dark Overlords, despite having equal control over Creturia, seem to escalate in power. Interestingly, their forces do as well.
Lampshaded in Legend of Neil. Wizzrobe lures Neil inot the first dungeon full of relatively weak monsters, but is Genre Savvy enough to wonder why he didn't lead him instead to dungeon 7, which is where Ganon's strongest minions dwell.
80. If my weakest troops fail to eliminate a hero, I will send out my best troops instead of wasting time with progressively stronger ones as he gets closer and closer to my fortress.
Linkara lampshades this in a guest appearance on The Isle of Rangoon when he refuses to defeat The Mysterious Malefactor. He points out that his villains have progressed from a semi-incompetent Mad Scientist to a reality-destroying Eldritch Abomination, and advises the characters to be happy with their "mostly-harmless schmuck of a villain".
Avatar: The Last Airbender is an interesting variation. They started with Anti-Villain Zuko, who was superseded by Admiral Zhao as the main threat. After Zhao's death came Zuko's Magnificent BastardDark Action Girl sister Azula, the main threat for the second season, who posed far more of a threat than Zuko and Zhao combined and whom Zuko rejoined in the season finale. The variation comes from Fire Lord Ozai being identified as the Big Bad from the very start of the series, both the audience and the protagonists fully aware that no matter how many enemies they face he would remain their ultimate goal.
Inverted in Ben 10, where each progressive seasons' Big Bad would actually be less powerful than the previous one (along with having smaller plots and fewer episodes dedicated to their plot arcs). Season 1's Big Bad was the hero's Arch-Enemy, the most feared alien in the galaxy, bent on galactic conquest, who punches mountains apart and bodyslams buildings hard enough to make them explode. The following seasons featured as Big Bads an 11-year-old who shared the hero's superpowers and whose sole goal was getting revenge on the hero, an alien ghost who "only" wanted to Take Over the World, and finally a guy in Powered Armor who only appeared in one episode (albeit a 2-part, 1 hour one), who had to assemble a team of previous secondary villains to do all his fighting for him, and whose big plan was to steal a Applied Phlebotinum battery that allowed his power armor to shoot Eye Beams.
In Code Lyoko, XANA's power increases every time they return to the past. So, though the Lyoko Warriors get better at fighting them, new and tougher monsters appear on Lyoko, and the specters sent to the real world gain greater powers and versatility over time.
In the movies, Danny Phantom played with this one a bit. In each successive movie, the villain's physical power and general imposingness decreased, but their actual threat level increased. The first movie villain, Pariah Dark, was by far the most powerful character in the series (four Dannys in four Humongous Mecha could barely restrain his de-powered form), yet he only managed to control the town for a day. Next came Danny's Magnificent Bastard future self, followed by a frail ringmaster named Freakshow who nonetheless manages to warp the entire country to his liking. The biggest bad of the series ultimately turns out to be an asteroid.
Surprisingly, The Fairly OddParents... Timmy first starts off having to deal with mean babysitters and school bullies, eventually upgraded to his crazy fairy-hunting teacher. Now he routinely has to deal with the Evil Plan-loving Pixies and Anti-Fairies who seem to be content with nothing less than the total domination and remaking of both Earth and the magical world. This reflects his getting deeper into the world of magic, where the stakes are higher: later on there is The Darkness, which is a threat to the normal galaxy and the magical universe. Timmy is thrown right in the midst of it.
Played straight with the epic multi-parters on Gargoyles. "Awakening" had Demona and Xanatos, who are certainly dangerous enemies but weren't really trying to do anything beyond controlling Goliath and his clan for use in their future schemes. In "City of Stone", Demona has acquired a spell that lets her turn the entire human population of New York to stone, making her much more dangerous. In "Avalon", the enemy is the Archmage, who is made even more powerful by the Artifact of Doom he's toting. In "The Gathering", the clan is up against Oberon, a being with godlike powers and no morals beyond his immediate whims. Finally in "Hunter's Moon" Demona's back again, this time with a virus that can destroy all non-gargoyle life on earth, making her even more dangerous than Oberon, even though she's far less powerful. Averted in the bulk of the series, though, where they face enemies of varying power-level throughout.
Jackie Chan Adventuresjustifies this by saying that, due to the cosmic Balance Of Good And Evil, if one evil is destroyed, it causes another, stronger evil to fill in the gap (the heroes only receive the Old Master's warning right after the villain's been destroyed, which leads to their Sorting Algorithm issues). Other than that, the series more or less kept Shendu as the strongest foe of choice.
Justice League makes it clear that they formed (and reformed) the league because they anticipated progressively stronger enemies. In a neat inversion, the Legion of Doom was organized specifically because the league was so powerful and the bad guys needed some sort of fraternity to put them on a similar level.
First, there was Nightmare Moon. Likely more powerful than her sister Celestia, she has done everything in her power to hinder the main cast, but underestimated them and eventually was overcome once they acquired the Elements of Harmony. Apparently she is now dormant within Luna and has resurfaced on occasion.
Then came Discord, a God of Evil who was so powerful enough that Celestia and Luna had to team up to defeat him last time; against the main characters he's able to neutralise the Elements of Harmony twice (once by stealing them, and once by breaking the friendship that powered them). Again, once the Elements were acquired, he was done for.
This is averted with the next villain however, Chrysalis, who is substantially weaker than Discord and possibly weaker than Nightmare Moon. However she is also a shapeshifting Emotion Eater who successfully Brainwashed the captain of the Royal Guard to expose Canterlot to her invading horde, and who—as a result of absorbing all the love surrounding a wedding—beat Celestia in a fair fight. She’s also clever enough to quickly prevent the main cast from acquiring the elements of harmony, thus increasing the tension through denying them most of the resources they previously counted on.
The next villain, King Sombra, is hard to place. He's certainly stronger than Chrysalis (who even powered up struggled with Celestia, while King Sombra took both Celestia and Luna to take out), it's unclear just how powerful he actually is as he spends most of the two parter unable to directly attack the group. However, he's clearly more dangerous than any preceding villain due to being Dangerously Genre Savvy to the point his Near Villain Victory comes without him actually needing to do anything.
In an aversion, while he's received some upgrades over the years, Megabyte from ReBoot is not only still the main villain, but with the exception of the now-deleted virus Daemon, he seems have become the most powerful virus in existence!
Season 1: Slade is very cunning but he's only one Badass Normal against a superpowered team; he can take any of them one-on-one, but against the whole team he gets curbstomped badly. As a result, he spends most of his time hiding in the shadows and plotting.
Season 2: Slade is back, but this time he's got Terra, one of the most powerful characters in the show, working for him. He loses only when she turns on him.
Season 3: Brother Blood has a wide range of Psychic Powers that let him control large groups of minions and handle the entire team with minimal effort. It takes the power of Deus ex Machina to finish him off.
Season 5: The Brain breaks the pattern. He's very smart but physically helpless; even with his Quirky Miniboss Squad and Legion of Doom allowing him to present a global threat, he's still not on Trigon's power or danger level.
The Guild of Calamitous Intent of The Venture Bros. fame. Enrolled villains (and protagonists alike) are ranked in order of their threat level; a low-ranking villain such as The Monarch is a good fit for a wash-up scientist like Doctor Venture, while a full-fledged superhero such as Captain Sunshine needs an equally sinister antagonist to match him. Villains and protagonists can increase (or decrease) in rank if their skills improve (or degenerate). And it's all good for keeping the bureaucracy happy.
Subverted in W.I.T.C.H., where the relative power levels of Big Bads, Dragons, and Mooks seem to spike up and down from time to time. The most powerful evil entity in the series is Prince Phobos, fought by the girls at the end of season one and a bit at the end of season two. He's always dangerous, and always requires the guardians to pull some kind of plan to beat. Season two's villain is Nerissa, less powerful but more cunning than Phobos. Season two's Quirky Miniboss Squads elevate in power throughout the season (from Phobos' former mooks to custom-created elemental monsters and finally to the former Guardians themselves), but despite this, Nerissa's power remains generally the same, even as she absorbs Hearts throughout the season. Nerissa frequently runs from the guardians rather than fight them, as she gets trounced whenever she faces them directly. She's still a threat because of her planning, however. By the end of it all, the final battle of season two is against a bad guy who's as powerful as Phobos and Nerissa combined: Cedric, who has consumed Phobos in order to absorb his and Nerissa's powers, along with the powers of the former Guardians, but because he doesn't know how to shot elements, he goes down in a few minutes in spectacular fashion.
Interestingly, they never actually fight Phobos at his normal level. All fights between him and the main characters have been when he's gained some sort of power boost.
In X-Men: Evolution, the team starts out mostly going up against the Brotherhood, a gang of mutants who are powerful, but not terribly competent (or, for the most part, terribly evil), making them fairly easy opponents. At the end of the first season they meet Magneto, who is far more powerful, cunning, and professional than his pawns, and he only gets later on when he starts being accompanied by his elite Acolytes. In the third and fourth seasons, though, the focus shifts to Apocalypse, the most powerful mutant ever, capable of defeating almost any other character in the show with ease and possessing world-spanning plans.
Xiaolin Showdown features a strong example of this, here is a list of the big bads as they vary from season to season:
S1: Jack Spicer a self proclaimed "evil boy genius" who, despite being whiny and idiotic, still put up a good fight, and kept the monks on their toes throughout the first season. Ever since then, outside of a few Throw the Dog a Bone Moments he's treated as little more than a nuisance, that the monks make short work of, especially in season 3!
S1-S3: Wuya is a sentient Sealed Evil in a Can, remaining a (mostly) harmless ghost for the majority of the Show's run, but when her true form is finally revealed in the season 1 finale, she's Nigh Invulnerable and single handedly conquers the World. They defeat her by getting a MacGuffin from the last person who beat her, that turns her back into a ghost. She's once again re-fleshed in season 3 albeit with her powers nerfed by another villain for being too untrustworthy. Still she's a worthy foe whenever she's fought.
S2: ChaseYoung is introduced as an unstoppable martial arts master with a taste for dragons, he soon blossoms into the new big bad for season 2, enacting a nefarious scheme to turn one of the heroes to the Heylin Way. He's so competent, he's never been bested in straight 1 vs 1 combat by the main characters. While still playing a very active part in season 3, he eventually gets overshadowed by....
S3: Hannibal RoyBean the show's embodiment of true evil, the only character that has no trace of a likability to him. His theoretical victory over the protagonists is described (by Chase Young no less) as being WORSE than the end of the world. Far....far worse. While not exactly stronger than Chase, he's easily more dangerous.
Any sort of multi-round elimination tournament, from spelling bees to professional sports championships, works a lot like this: the first round includes (and eliminates) the less-skilled participants, then the moderate ones get culled in the second round, and so forth, until only the top two contenders are left to face off for the trophy. Bracketed tournaments often "seed" the teams/participants. In the very first round, the participant who is most likely to win is pitted against the participant who is least likely to win. This practice tries to avoid situations where the best and second best participants face off in an early round (giving the third best a go at number one without having to go through number two). When the competition results are uninteresting (first seed places first, second seed places second, etc) the people who drew up the competition brackets sit around and congratulate themselves. The point is that the matches in the later stages will have been made as interesting as possible, with the maximum possible number of top seeds still in contention.
Partially averted by the FA Cup in England. Teams in upper leagues enter later than those in lower leagues. However, the draws are entirely random. The Third Round Proper has the 44 Premier League and Championship teams (the top two leagues in English football) joined by 20 teams that have made it through the previous rounds. There is nothing stopping the teams placed first and second in the Premier League from being drawn against each other in the third round.
If an army were to invade Thailand, they might find this sort of situation. The troops on the borders of the country are usually not the best available. The best are stationed near the capital, but that's mostly because they are needed in case of a coup, either to help or hinder.
Tends to happen with dictatorships, as the dictator generally likes keeping his Praetorian Guard next to him in the rear, while sending out waves of Cannon Fodder.
Not necessarily, as dictators often serve other requirements at home than in the field, i. e. what they really want in their capital is a strong security and secret police to hold down the civilian populace, not so much crack field units to fight foreign invaders after these succeeded in defeating the rest of the army. In that way, the original Praetorian Guard of ancient Rome was special not so much because they were an elite but because they were the only troops allowed near Rome (and a number of emperors found to their cost that you could not always count on their loyalty). Quite often the legions operating on the frontiers had more combat experience and tended to be loyal to their commanders.
Most wars subvert this trope- at the beginning of the war both countries will be at their best but as one side begins to suffer defeats and begins losing its territory its professional soldiers will have been killed off and it comes down to the point of sending old men and boys to the front. e.g. World War I, Germany in World War II, etc....
Some commanders tended to keep certain elite forces in reserve to avert a crisis in case of a reverse, and thus the opposition would usually only encounter them after they defeated non-elite units. This was most pronounced with Napoleon, who carefully assembled his Imperial Guard from among experienced and distinguished veterans, and subdivided it into Old, Middle and Young Guard. In the campaigns up until 1812 the infantry of the Old Guard in fact saw very little action (its cavalry and artillery was another matter), but in those of 1813, 1814 and 1815 it became necessary to actually use it in battle almost as a matter of routine. However the Guard actually contributed surprisingly few manpower to the personal safety of the Emperor and his headquarters (in 1814 he was once nearly captured by roving cossacks).
The 2010-2011 "Arab Spring" protests in the Middle East seem to have evoked this trope. Zine Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia quickly evacuated to Saudi Arabia in the face of rising demonstrations. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt refused to abdicate power in the face of massive protests, and used cynical tactics like sending in plainclothes cops to engage in looting. He eventually stepped down after eighteen days. Then we have Mohammar Gadafi of Libya, who has used airstrikes and mercenariesagainst their own people, and was killed by rebel forces after a Civil War. And now Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, who is not only doing everything Gadafi did, but has been accused of using chemical weapons. And isn't losing his country's civil war.
Saddam Hussein's strategy during the 2003 invasion did so as well, as described by John Keegan in the Daily Telegraph: "Saddam's correct strategy would have been to group his best forces in the south, to oppose the Anglo-Americans as far from the capital as possible, and then to conduct a fighting withdrawal up the valleys of the great rivers, leaving devastation behind.... In orthodox military practice, the Republican Guard...should have been committed first, to blunt the coalition onset. The regular army should then have been committed to reinforce the Republican Guard when and where it achieved success. The paramilitaries should have been kept out of battle, to harass the invaders if the regular defence collapsed....Saddam has fought the battle the other way around."