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- In Super Dimension Fortress Macross, the human military thinks they will defeat the Zentraedi because they don't realize just how massive the alien armada is. And even then, the only reason they were surviving against the scouts was because the scouts were probing humanity's defenses to learn more about them, rather than just stomping them out of existence. The Macross Beam that humanity is so proud of on the eponymous ship? Half the Zentraedi warships have one. They just weren't using them. Also, the mighty fleet they barely managed to defeat was the 114th fleet: there are many others out there, and could show up any time. Though later series don't make as big a deal about it, it's implied that encounters and wars with roving Zentraedi fleets are very common occurrences as they expand throughout the galaxy, only being minor conflicts by virtue of the Zentraedi not being a unified army, allowing the humans to take them on one by one, and the humans' realization that exposure to culture tends to stop them dead in their tracks.
- One of the final lines of Macross: Do You Remember Love? is a grim statement by Exsedol that, even though they've barely managed to defeat Boddole Zer and Lap Lamiz, there are thousands of other Zentraedi/Meltrandi fleets in the galaxy that are just as powerful still waiting, so the real hardships are only just beginning. And while in the main continuity there's only one encounter with a largish Meltrandi fleet, in this one there are continuous attacks from Zentraedi and Meltrandi isolated ships and small raiding parties and five Main Fleets (a Zentraedi fleet in 2036, another Zentraedi and a Meltrandi one in 2037, both interfering with each other, another Zentraedi in 2054, and a fifth in 2082). And then, in 2094, the Marduk show up...
- Double Subverted in Macross II: the initial Marduk force is immediately identified as a scouting force, but when the Marduk later attack in force the hundreds of thousands of the first wave are mistaken for the whole force. Both are Justified: the initial Marduk squadron is initially mistaken for Zentraedi until they get a good look at them, and for Zentraedi standard less than a hundred ships can only be a scouting party, and by the time the Marduk attack in force they've been identified as not Zentraedi, and by non-Zentraedi standards hundreds of thousands of ships are an enormous number.
- In Macross 7, the 7th Colonization Fleet has a fair amount of trouble with the enemy Varauta fleet's attacks, but they eventually decide to get serious and start blasting the Varauta with Macross Beams. Then it's revealed that the Varauta soldiers are just mind-controlled pawns of the Protodeviln, just one of whom could annihilate the entire Colonization Fleet without much effort... or at least, they could if Basara would stop getting in their faces and singing at them.
- In the latest story arcs of Macross, humanity has assumed the trope. The alien antagonists don't challenge the entire UN Spacey: just isolated migrant fleets escorted by several warships. In The Movie version of Macross Frontier, when the Vajra faced a real human military fleet, they fled the battlefield to avoid annihilation by massed Wave Motion Gun fire.
- At the start of Dragon Ball Z, when Raditz arrives to Earth, it takes the combined efforts of Piccolo and Goku, some help from Gohan, and even a Heroic Sacrifice from Goku to kill him. During his last moments, Raditz tells of his two stronger companions, who will come to Earth in a year.
- In the sixth DBZ movie, The Return of Cooler, Goku and Vegeta just barely managed to overpower and defeat one Metal Cooler, but are then promptly attacked by a thousand more of them.
- Digimon Frontier: The team finally faces off with the dark angel Big Bad Cherubimon. He throws off their best attacks easily, and after giving each member of the team the opportunity to throw The Worf Barrage at him so he can laugh it off, he smashes everyone with a single attack. Kouichi, The Atoner, gets his Digimon forms back, redesigned and stronger, and manages to defeat Cherubimon... only for the voice of Cherubimon to taunt him. That was just a much-weaker projection the real Cherubimon whipped up in order to try and talk Kouichi back to The Dark Side. The real thing will be waiting for them when they reach his lair.
- The first enemy robot in FLCL was only part the hand of a robot. They meet the full version in the next episode.
- In the second volume of Barom One, our heroes finally manage to defeat Doruge only to learn that he's an advance scout of the Doruge race and he's already called in reinforcements.
- The first Menos Grande seen in Bleach is the first really challenging fight that Ichigo faces. He couldn't even beat it on his own at the time and he and Ishida worked together just to make it retreat. Much later, Ichigo is disturbed when he learns that Gillian class Menos like the one he fought are mere foot soldiers in Hueco Mundo.
- After Hitsugaya's group wins against the first group of Arrancars, although Grimmjow is winning against Ichigo until he's forced to withdraw, Hitsugaya points out that the ones they killed are most likely not the elites. In another scene, Aizen confirms this by saying those were the weakest of the arrancar.
- Played with when Ichigo tries to take down Ulquiorra and is saved by Grimmjow: Ichigo thinks that he must be the top Espada, and if he can kill him then there's nothing to worry about. Ulquiorra while holding Ichigo's blade in one hand reveals that he is only number 4. Although it later turns out that he hid his full strength from Aizen, meaning he's probably the strongest after all.
- In YuYu Hakusho, Yusuke is horrified when Koenma tells him that Younger Toguro, who at the time was the toughest opponent he had ever fought, was "only" an upper B-class demon, with B-class being the third highest ranking.
- In Fairy Tail, Gajeel and Levy are attacked by Yomazu and Kawazu and have a very difficult time fighting them. Gajeel has a major Oh, Crap! moment when Yomazu reveals they are merely the advance scouts of Grimoire Heart. Gajeel orders Levy to run and warn the others of Grimoire Heart's arrival.
- One Piece has an indirect example, as it doesn't involve any fighting or the main characters being involved. After Luffy's defeat of Crocodile, his bounty more than tripled to being 100,000,000 beli; however, that increase was soon followed by a scene in which Shanks, one of the Four Emperors, the most powerful pirates in the One Piece world, sends a message to another one of said Emperors, Whitebeard. The messenger is revealed to have a bounty just below Luffy's, but it's noted that he was only recently accepted into Shanks's crew, and no one in Whitebeard's crew knows or really cares who he is. The scene serves to show that, despite his boost in infamy, Luffy still has a long way to go before he really matters to the truly powerful pirates in the setting.
- Beyblade: The Blade Breakers are taking on the All-Starz in America. Tyson and Ray easily take down two gimmicky bladers. Then Max's mom reveals that those two bladers were some of their weakest, and the purpose of the battle was to gather data.
- In Haruhi-chan, after Asakura is defeated, she suggests this of herself, saying that there are three other members of the Radical Four like her, but all of them are stronger than she is.
- In the first episode of Ronin Warriors, the heroes work together and managed to beat the enemy only to learn it was a foot soldier in the evil overlord's army.
- Early in Toriko, Toriko has to get past a pack of Troll Kongs—giant, four-armed, monster apes. The first one Toriko encounters is just a scout, and while it's no match for our hero, it barfs on Toriko, leaving our hero smelling like the much weaker, far less dangerous Troll Kong. Which means Toriko can't intimidate the rest of the pack.
- In The Seven Deadly Sins, Red Demons and Grey Demons, which had previously been depicted as among the most powerful enemies shown so far, are seen as mere expendable grunts by the rest of demonkind.
- In one issue of Superman, Superman has been training for weeks and had to team up with the son of one his enemies to fight Imperiex. After a hard battle, Superman wins the battle and thinks Imperiex is through and goes home. Sometime later we find out that "Imperiex" was just a probe and that Imperiex Prime was a gigantic version of the thing Superman fought.
- The Celestials once decreed that a planet's population was to be destroyed. Thor disagreed, and exhausted himself beating on the Celestial who towered over the world with a downturned thumb and stoic expression. Through it all, the Celestial made no attempt to fight back, and Thor's attacks were laughably ineffective. Already frustrated at his failure to kill his opponent, he then realized that this one was merely the judge and jury of the Celestials-not the executioner. Cue the arrival of the executioner-ten times bigger, stronger, and angry.
- Ultron Unlimited After destroying a whole country, Ultron fights against all of the Avengers (except those he had captured). After a long fight, they manage to destroy Ultron-7. Then, suddenly, Ultron-8 shows up. Iron Man is not sure if the can repeat all the fight again... which dissapointed Ultron-23. 23? How many of them are there? That's a very good question, says Ultron-647.
- The Bridge: A group of Cloud Gremlins take control of a storm cloud and attempt to invade the weather factory of Cloudsdale. Since the storm cloud is protected by dark magic, it takes a bit of teamwork from Rainbow Dash and Rodan to destroy it. Before they can celebrate, a cloud about 5 times bigger than the first carrying the main Cloud Gremlin force arrives, and the first group even mentions they were just the scouts.
- Event Horizon: Storm of Magic: Applies to the Company's colonies in relation to the lands they're located in. At one point, Fred boasts to the Small Council that their little colony has a higher GDP and industrial output than the rest of the Seven Kingdoms combined.
- The attack of the Army of Anubis in The Mummy Returns. The Medji think they've defeated the army, only to the realize that the REAL army is swarming over the dunes like a monstrous black shadow.
- Invoked in the first Hellboy movie:
Rasputin: Salt, gathered from the tears of a thousand angels, restraining the essence of Sammael, the Hellhound. The Seed of Destruction. This I can promise, Sammael, for every one of you that falls, two shall arise.
- In The Avengers (2012), New York is invaded by several aliens, and a flying creature that seems immune to missiles, laser beams, repulsor beams, it's all useless. Nobody can stop that thing... except a lone guy who is always angry. The creature is destroyed, but Loki simply summons more like them from the portal.
- In Thor: The Dark World, Asgard is attacked by the Dark Elves. Heimdall manages to get into the invading Elf fighter, and disable it. When a dozen fighters appear, he leaves.
- A downplayed example in Independence Day: Resurgence. In the first film, humanity barely survives the alien onslaught and manages to destroy the alien fleet at great cost. Come the sequel 20 years later, a new, much larger, alien armada is on the way to put down the upstart humans, possibly implying that the first one was just a small flotilla by the alien standards.
- In Sergey Lukyanenko's The Stars Are Cold Toys, the mightiest battle fleet of the entire known space is attacked by an unknown aggressor, who deals them heavy damage before being taken down. It turns out, however, that said "aggressor" was a mere scout of the super-advanced Geometer civilization. To be fair, though, the Geometers don't have warships per se, but they have a good number of such scout ships.
- At the end of the first part of The Armageddon Inheritance, the second book in David Weber's "Empire from the Ashes" series, there is an Apocalyptic space-battle on the fringes of Earth's solar system between human beings and a race of alien Omnicidal Maniacs. Hundreds of thousands of humans die, and Terran civilization is nearly wiped out, but eventually the good guys win. And its only then, in the last pages of the book, that it is discovered that the invasion fleet humanity nearly lost to was only a scouting force, and the real invasion fleet (with a thousand times the number of battleships than the fleet that just attacked Earth) is still coming.
- In Aesop's Fables, a lion is hit by an arrow, and runs away from the man who shot him. A fox, seeing this, makes fun of him, and the Lion retorts, "Yes, I'm retreating. If he's sending a messenger like this, just think how tough the man himself must be!"
- Robert Sheckley's story A Wind is Rising has it with weather. A human station with two people is based on a planet where the wind never drops below 70 mph. They barely weather a storm of nearly 200 mph, which leaves them with a severely battered station and a broken vehicle at their hands. Then a local alien (who gives them weather forecasts) says "Sorry for my last forecast not being accurate enough to warn you about this moderate gale. Why is it my last forecast? Well, the summer is over, and now me and my people must leave to hide from the powerful winter storms."
- In Diamond Sword, Wooden Sword, an army of mages has a hard time defending the world of Mel'in from an army of small Eldritch Abominations called the Goat-legs. In the sequels, the main army of the critters arrives, and the magical orders are neither unified nor in control now and thus cannot oppose them.
- In the backstory to the William Barton military science-fiction novel When Heaven Fell, a Master Race scoutship with only a few hundred Kkhruhhuft troops accidentally stumbled upon 22nd century Earth and decided to try conquering the planet by itself. After millions died, it was only driven away after being rammed by a relativistic starship. The governments of Earth spent the next fifty years gearing up for interstellar war, and all that bought them was eight billion humans dying under the guns and hydraulics of a full invasion fleet before the survivors surrendered and were absorbed into the Master Race's empire.
- In the Formic Wars novels, the Formics invade with an enormous and powerful starship, which also turns out to be The Mothership to several landers and hundreds of fighters. The invasion is barely stopped with millions dead. Then a girl analyzes astronomical data collected by satellites and realizes it was only a scout ship sent in advance of the real mothership, which is in the process of being cannibalized to build an armada for the real invasion. Of course, since it's a prequel to Ender's Game, the outcome is already known.
- A variation in Mikhail Akhmanov's Arrivals from the Dark. The first novel, aptly titled Invasion has a massive Bino Faata starship arriving to the Solar System in order to establish an outpost on Earth, using humans as slave labor and, possibly, re-engineering them into a new hybrid Human Subspecies. At the time, humanity is still pre-FTL. When the massive ship finally reveals itself to the human nations, it's surrounded by a fleet of a dozen human warships, whose crews are confident of victory, since they are utilizing a standard "asteroid destruction" tactic (they've never fought an actual space battle before). When the aliens get tired of talking, they launch a fraction of their on-board combat modules that quickly wipe out the fleet facing them, while the starship's Deflector Shields easily shrug off a nuclear barrage with a combined strength of 140 gigaton. The ship is eventually stopped with the help of a different alien, leaving it to be studied by human scientists. Fast-forward 37 years to the second novel Retaliation, when a newly-created task force of FTL-capable ships is sent to the location of 3 Faata colonies in the Orion Arm (they're from the Pegasus Arm). When a scout frigate is sent to gather intel, they find a shipyard with three such Faata starships in the process of being completed. The only advantage humans have at this point is surprise, since the aliens still don't know their invasion failed. But three such ships would easily overwhelm even the new human ships that use reverse-engineered tech with sheer numbers and the willingness to use them. Eventually subverted in that humanity quickly gets its ass in gear and starts cranking out new and better ships in the Asteroid Belt, just in time for four long wars with the Faata. After a century of fighting, humanity emerges as a galactic superpower, while the Faata fade into obscurity.
Live Action TV
- The Outer Limits (1963): In "The Invisible Enemy", astronauts battle a powerful Sand-Beast. At the end, the two survivors manage to kill it, but then several more Sand-Beasts emerge. The survivors promptly pack up and leave.
- Star Trek
- This is the Starfleet fear during later seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation: what if instead of one cube, the Borg send millions?
- Used in one episode of Star Trek: Voyager: the ship managed to defeat a Borg scout without much damage, so Janeway suggests they start an offensive against the Borg. Seven of Nine reminds her that the outcome would be different had they encountered a cube.
- They try to take on a cube anyway with a method that should keep them invisible to the Borg, and a meticulously worked-out plan that will let them steal the Applied Phlebotinum they need and get away in just a few minutes. ...and the Borg Queen reveals to Seven of Nine not only does she know exactly where they are, she could Curb Stomp them any time she wished and would only keep holding back if Seven of Nine rejoined her.
- In Warhammer 40,000, the absolutely massive Tyranid fleets that have ravaged several sections of the Imperium are said to only be the scouting fleets of the main force. The same applies to the Necrons, whose true war machines are still in storage on their hibernating Tomb Worlds.
- Played quite straight in a scenario outline in the 4th edition Champions supplement Mystic Masters. The Big Bad is a dimensional conqueror with the ability to split his awareness between thousands of different bodies of varying power levels, and one of his opening gambits is to test the PCs' defenses with a single one of his weakest ones — any damage he manages to inflict is a welcome bonus, but mostly the intent is to find out what this new set of prospective enemies may be capable of. (The scenario explicitly hangs a lampshade on the possibility of the players potentially going "huh, was that all?" after this encounter.)
- The intro to Left 4 Dead features this exchange:
- Mass Effect
- Mass Effect ends with an epic battle against the Reaper known as Sovereign, which is only narrowly defeated by the combined efforts of the Citadel and Terran fleets. However, Sovereign is only a vanguard, left behind by the Reapers to secure their return. There are more where he came from, and they're coming back one way or another...
- At the end of Mass Effect 2, a fleet of THOUSANDS of Reapers is headed towards the galaxy, ready to invade. Just ONE nearly wiped out the Citadel Fleet in the previous game.
- And in the trailer for Mass Effect 3, at least eight of them are attacking London. Who knows how many others are on the planet?
- The third game also reveals that there is no possible way the combined forces of the galaxy can hope to defeat the entire Reaper armada, despite reverse-engineering some of their tech. The only way to stop them is with the Crucible.
- Happens in Sonic Chronicles. The first Marauder that Sonic encounters is only a scout. Sonic expects an easy fight, only for the scout to turn out to be a difficult boss (well, difficult for a first level boss).
- The first few battles against the Shivans in FreeSpace are completely one-sided, with the Shivan ships being Nigh Invulnerable, extremely maneuverable, and heavy-hitting in damage. A few upgrades later, the player can fight these monstrosities evenly, and even manages, with a huge amount of effort, to capture what they think is a Shivan command ship. Then it turns out that those were outdated Shivan scouts, and the "command ship" was among the weakest deployed Shivan warships... the actual muscle of the Shivan armada soon arrives and pretty much steamrolls the Terran and Vasudan fleets, no matter what countermeasures they come up with.
- Also invoked by the tagline of the second game: "The Shivans are back, and they're wondering what happened to their scouting party."
- And occurs, after the player spends a minor campaign arc hunting down a juggernaut-class vessel which outguns everything, including the one-of-a-kind superdestroyer Colossus. Then it turns out there are more. A three-digit number more.
- Also invoked by the tagline of the second game: "The Shivans are back, and they're wondering what happened to their scouting party."
- In Infinite Space, the Lugovalian fleet that invades the Small Magellanic Cloud is only the vanguard fleet. And it's still enough to easily conquer the entire galaxy.
- The heroes manage to defeat the Balmarian fleet by the end of Shin Super Robot Wars. At the end of the Space Route, Char Aznable sends a message to Londo Bell, whom he expects to be in a festive mood, yet unjustified by what Char is convinced has been a horrific mistake for mankind. He reckons they got lucky with this victory, and points out that Balmar is sure to send a second, or third fleet to Earth, without any shortage of firepower. Just how far will Londo Bell's efforts last, he muses, ostentatiously checking himself and claiming sarcastically that sour grapes weren't the intent of the message. Since Char is worried about mankind too, in his fashion, he has chosen to accompany the aliens returning to their own worlds. Therefore, he is entrusting Londo Bell with all the alien technology he has been able to amass, telling them to put it to good use for humanity. According to Master Asia, he had to use the power of the Devil Gundam just on this fleet, and with the coming of the other fleets, he has to return to his home planet, Dug, to get aide from the Dug Interstellar Republic.
- Super Robot Wars Alpha, which revised and retold the story of the Aerogaters attacking Earth's fleet ends with with a similar feeling. The Balmarians are in control of most of the alien forces fought, and those that aren't still pose a threat to Earth. In a twist though, when the Balmarians resume their attempts to conquer Earth they lack much of their additional manpower and they've been losing fleets offscreen, to say nothing of the meteor storms devastating their home planet. In a way, the "scouts" wound up posing the greatest threat to the Earth Sphere.
- Demonbane has this early in the story. After using Demonbane's immense power to destroy one of Black Lodge's destroyer robots, the heroes are feeling pretty good about their chances against the organization. Then the organization's leader, Master Therion, shows up and takes on Demonbane without his own Humongous Mecha, and completely trashes it without even trying. This serves as a chilling reminder to everyone of exactly what they're up against and how tough a battle this will be.
- The intro to the Alien Crossfire Expansion Pack to Sid Meierís Alpha Centauri shows two Progenitor ships warping into orbit and proceeding to blast each other to bits, with only their Escape Pods making it to the planet. The survivors turn out to be equal to the long-established human colonies. The aliens have an additional victory type, requiring them to build a Subspace Ansible, after which a massive armada warps into orbit and starts to descend. Understandably, the game ends at that point.
- The Old Gods in World of Warcraft who took the combined efforts of the Titans to defeat whom could each easily destroy the world if not for being weakened in some way are revealed to be the minions of the Void Gods who seek to corrupt the entire universe.
- The Burning Legion, while dangerous, has been driven off multiple times by the forces of Azeroth, even killing most of its highest ranking commanders. The Legion expansion aptly demonstrates how little that matters. Not only has Azeroth only ever faced a tiny fraction of the Legion's forces, but none of those commanders were permanently killed. And now Azeroth is apparently the last world left to be conquered so the Burning Legion is focusing all of it's forces on them.
- Subverted in the first Homeworld: the powerful fleet that destroyed Kharak seems geared for being the final enemy, but prisoners quickly point out it's just a small and unimportant frontier force.
- In the backstory to Sword of the Stars Earth was attacked by a Hiver fleet that nearly wiped out the human race but for the launching of Earth's entire nuclear arsenal. But later, as stated in the intro, it turned out that fleet was "only a small nesting fleet, we had yet to see the full power of the swarm." Fortunately, the Hiver Imperium was fighting a Succession Crisis at the time and Sol Force made an alliance with the Princess who ended up winning the crown jewels.
- In Stellaris the Prethoryn Swarm is preceded by a vanguard that attempts to establish a foothold in the galaxy before the main force arrives. While the first Unbidden incursion is followed by other factions that will fight each other as readily as the local "prey".
- Xenoblade Chronicles X: Remember that giant alien warfleet that was shown obliterating Earth as a side effect of its battle against another in the beginning of the game? A portion of which you're fighting on the new planet you're stranded on? Yeah, that wasn't a real army. It was a bunch of criminals. The heroes are rather disturbed to learn that the force that destroyed Earth and nearly drove humanity to extinction is nothing more than a "run-of-the-mill crime syndicate".
- X-Universe: In the backstory, the incredibly advanced Ancient Ones fought a titanic war against beings known as the Outsiders, who are thought to come from another universe and who appeared in massive, solar system-sized constructs that began altering physics around them and eating up resources like nothing ever seen. The Ancient Ones managed to barely destroy one of these things, which prompted the rest to retreat. The Ancient Ones theorize that those massive things were Outsider scout ships or probes, possibly even non-combative in nature. They're not sure why the Outsiders backed off, and are concerned should they ever make another appearance.
- Furi: YOU, the Stranger/Rider, are just one mass-produced scout of the invading aliens, and despite that such a combat monster that Earth's best can't stop you.
- Transformers Prime in Crossfire Airachnid now wanted by Megatron, controls an Insecticon to get her revenge. The Insecticon really got Meg's on the ropes, but after he defeated it, she realizes that it was only a scout, as she found an entire nest of Insecticons.
- In the episode "Savage Time", the Justice League appears in World War II. The immortal villain Vandal Savage had sent to himself information from the future, that allowed to build an armored vehicle, tall as a building, indestructible and filled with weapons. Normal tanks have no chance against it. Even the Justice League has a hard time destroying it. When several more show up, the League retreats with the rest of the army.
- Played with in an episode of Futurama, where the Omicronians are invading (to bring back their favorite 20th-century TV show). A massive fleet is gathered and is told to attack the alien mothership. Many are killed, but, eventually, the heroes manage to blow it up. Everyone celebrates, until an ever bigger ship appears and starts blasting everything else to dust. Not only was that first target not the mothership, it was the Hubble Space Telescope (inexplicably well-armed).