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Unwinnable Training Simulation
aka: The Kobayashi Maru
Lt. Saavik: Permission to speak candidly, sir.
Admiral Kirk: Granted.
Saavik: I don't believe this was a fair test of my command abilities.
Kirk: And why not?
Saavik: Because... there was no way to win.
Kirk: A no-win situation is a possibility every commander may face. [...] How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn't you say?
Saavik: (stiffly) As I indicated, Admiral, that thought had not occured to me.
Kirk: Well, now you have something new to think about. Carry on.
— Informal debriefing from the exam, "Kobayashi Maru", in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Our hero is executing an impossible mission. It's full of action and adventure, and he gets to show off how heroic he is, but at the last minute, something unexpected goes badly — often ridiculously so. The killer robot swoops down to off The Hero and...

Computer, end program.

It was all just a simulation, training exercise, or Dream Sequence. In most cases, The Hero steps outside to discuss what he did wrong with the simulation operator, who will point out, "If this had been an actual emergency, you'd be dead."

The rest of the episode will typically focus on his overcoming whatever character flaw prevented him from succeeding in simulation. If the simulation is truly supposed to be unbeatable, the focus will be on the character learning to accept the fact that sometimes you just can't win.

This is typically used as the first scene of an episode or film (though it may also come between the planning and execution phases of an Impossible Mission story), as an easy way of introducing the viewer to the kind of danger the main character(s) might experience on a regular basis. It will feel like In Medias Res, except that it's not really part of the main storyline.

Such a scene shows that the character is not invincible but has a critical flaw which might lead to his demise later without actually affecting the plot. This will cause additional suspense later on when the character inevitably gets into a similar "real" situation and must show that he overcame this flaw (or is able to find a clever workaround for it).

Occurs most often in Speculative Fiction, series about teams of criminals, series set in the military, and shows about ninjas. Sometimes leads to a Training Accident plot, if the people involved don't know it's not real.

An Unwinnable Training Simulation may double as an Hidden Purpose Test, often of how the trainees deal with unwinnable situations. If this type of scenario is featured at the beginning of an episode, the character flaw the rest of the episode focuses on will either be the character's own pride or inability to accept that sometimes, crap happens.

Occasionally, this will be subverted in that the character will win the scenario, by 'cheating' (which is how Kirk in both The Wrath of Khan and the 2009 reboot became the only cadet to ever win).

A type of False Crucible. See also Endless Game and Secret Test of Character. If the simulation becomes legitimately dangerous, that's a Holodeck Malfunction. If the simulation was legitimately dangerous all along, it's Deadly Training Area. If the situation is not a simulation, but instead a real life situation where the character is set up to fail, it may be A Lesson In Defeat.

Examples

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    Anime and Manga 
  • Dragon Ball Z: In the Vegeta saga, Kami used a simulation to introduce Kuririn, Yamucha, Tenshinhan, Chaozu and Yajirobe to the capabilities of Saiyans.
  • Soukou No Strain, when Sara trains for sub-lightspeed permission.
  • Many times in the .hack// series, although they're in a virtual world to begin with.
  • Somewhat used in the second Cardcaptor Sakura movie. After capturing all of the Cards, we learn that this is how Tomoyo keeps herself entertained. However, it's not a simulation (the monsters are made with the Create card), and Sakura wins.
  • Used once in Outlaw Star, where Gene goes through several launch simulations. Each time, something goes badly wrong as a test to see how he's react in unanticipated situations. Needless to say, it pissed him off, and the first launch went perfectly...Well, if you don't count the thousands of dollars worth of damage he caused to the landing dock, that is.
  • Code Geass doesn't use it, but in one interview the show's director offered a Unwinnable Training Simulation situation to illustrate the differences between the two male leads. As the story goes, there's a car wreck and two men are injured, one worse than the other; there's also a hospital some distance away. Lelouch, an "end justifies the means" type, would consider the factors, then take the man with less severe injuries to the hospital; that man lives, and Lelouch consoles himself over the other's death with the knowledge that at least he saved one person. Suzaku, a "means justifies the ends" type, would do his best to get both of them to the hospital, but they'd both die along the way; at first he'd curse his own weakness, but then he'd assuage himself by saying that he did the right thing.
  • Banner of the Stars opens with a fierce battle which results in the main characters' ship being destroyed. It turns out it was a mock engagement.
  • The beginning episodes of Sky Girls were built up in such a way that the three main characters believe they're part of an aerobatics team, even when they were eventually training with weapons. But one episode's simulator suddenly throws the thought-to-be-extinct WORMs into their routine flight training. With no training and the WORM's overwhelming firepower, none of the girls, not even the Eika with her military background, can defeat it. It isn't until two episodes later (on a Hot Springs Episode no less) that their true purpose is revealed.
  • The "Program" short in The Animatrix featured this which tests how crewmate would respond in a situation if one of their own turned against them. In this case Cis is informed by her partner Duo that he has betrayed the rebels and informed the machines of their location. Having locked the program so she can't escape, it's pretty much a lose/lose situation. She can kill him but be killed when the machines destroy her ship, be killed by him or join him in betraying the humans.

    Comic Books 
  • Try to count how many times the X-Men did this in their Danger Room. Between the comics and cartoons, Wolverine has had his butt kicked by simulated robots in order to learn an important lesson at least once per Story Arc.
    "Bang! You're dead."
    • In Joss Whedon's "Astonishing X-men" run, Emma Frost simulated a Sentinel invasion as the beginning of student orientation. Without letting the other X-men know. She wanted to hammer in the point that the world at large will always hate and fear the students for being mutants, and they always need to be ready to defend themselves.
  • This appears in one of the flashback sequences of Ex Machina, with Bradbury and Kremlin acting as well-equipped robbers to test out Mitchell's equipment and reflexes.
  • Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force had a comic book adaptation which begins with this. The scenario was that the Voyager is attacked by a Borg Cube (complete with exterior shot) and Hazard Team is sent to plant explosives around the cube to distract them long enough for the Voyager to escape. During the attack, Munro falls into an assimilation chamber, where he finds an assimilated Foster and not wanting to Shoot the Dog, fails. Tuvok even points this scenario out and notes its similarity to the Kobayashi Maru. This was called back when Foster did get assimilated and Tuvok calls Munro out for not shooting him.
  • Played with in Preacher. Herr Starr must take unarmed combat lessons with an instructor infamous for badly injuring students on the first day. Starr “beats” him by shooting him in both knees. Perhaps not a straight example though as while it supposed to be an unwinnable situation it was never officially sanctioned.

    Fan Works 
  • Many fanfiction writers have written their take on how they would win the Kobayashi Maru scenario, but very few have felt as within the realm of the possible as "The Final Simulation," a mini-story featured in the Eyrie Productions universe, Undocumented Features. In this story, Ben Hutchins' Author Avatar, Gryphon, captains the simulated Enterprise through the encounter with Klingons menacing the wayward fuel carrier with a plan to beat the "no-win scenario." Monitoring them are Admirals Christopher Pike (the original Jeffrey Hunter version) and Roger Cartwright (from the classic Trek movies) as he and his crew pull off the ultimate Starfleet Academy stunt — outsmarting the scenario without cheating. Aiding him are fellow Starfleet cadets from a wide range of sources:
  • The infamous Marissa Picard stories use the Kobayashi Maru test as a plot justification to have preteens pilot the Enterprise, due to their long survival time in the simulation. No, it doesn't really make sense, but that's the least of these stories' problems.
  • "The Universe Doesn't Cheat" was written for a Star Trek Online forum prompt on the Maru, and somewhat deconstructs it. Kanril Eleya takes the test mostly to formalize her right to command, and ends up playing Xanatos Speed Chess against the computer. She and T'Var figure out that the computer is cheating when a pair of pursuing battlecruisers hit a physically impossible speed. Eleya changes tactics for the fourth time and the computer basically gives up and drops a battleship on her head. T'Var calls the logic behind the test fallacious and notes that with their Willing Suspension of Disbelief broken by the computer's obvious cheating, the accuracy of the test is questionable.
  • A Warhammer/Mass Effect crossover called Hammerfall has a Space Marine trying to beat one of these. The AI tries to persuade him that "winning" the simulation is impossible, since it has no ends and simply keeps spawning more and more (and more powerful) enemies until you die. The point is to die as late as possible. Though it should be noted that this is entirely in character for a Space Marine.
  • Hope On A Distant Mountain turns the events of Dangan Ronpa into one, meant to test the skills of SHSL students with particularly high willpower or leadership potential. Naegi managed to beat it, much to everyone's surprise, but suffers from PTSD afterwards, struggling to adapt back to the real world and everyone's high expectations for him.

    Film 
  • The "Kobayashi Maru" training scenario seen in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which is a test of how the OCS cadet responds to a Heads I Win, Tails You Lose situation. The cadet, in command of a starship, receives a distress call from a freighter (the Kobayashi Maru), which has broken down in The Neutral Zone between Klingon and Federation territory, and whose crew will soon die unless action is taken. The politically correct choice is to abandon them to their law-breaking fates; if the cadet chooses to aid, s/he is preemptively attacked by angry Klingons. The aspect of the test which some trope users do not carry over is that the cadet must be defeated by those ships, so The Computer Is a Cheating Bastard and will happily break the laws of physics, probability or reality to ensure a Humiliation Conga-worthy win.
    • Responses to the scenario are varied, with several characters improvising solutions but losing anyway (Scotty, for instance, used a physics trick that worked on paper but not in the real world; the computer's response was to spawn more ships than the entire Klingon fleet had). Only James T. Kirk ever defeated it, and that was by reprogramming the simulation beforehand so that the Klingons would be respectful of the reputation he intended to have. Computer cheats? Kirk cheats back. (According to semi-canonical novels by Shatner himself, the test later becomes used to encourage this sort of outside-the-box thinking.)
      • Other Star Trek novels give Kirk the Freudian Excuse that his traumatic memories of the executions on Tarsus IV (from "Conscience of the King") led him to not believe in the No-Win Scenario.
      • In the reboot, Kirk reprograms the simulation so that the Klingons have no shields. He then photon-torpedoes the ships and "wins". Also worth noting is that here Spock designs the test every year to be unbeatable, with the point of the no-win situation being to know what it's like to face certain death, while Kirk (like in the aforementioned novels) explicitly believes there is no such thing as a no-win situation.
      • As Pike says in the 2009 reboot, "It depends on how you define 'winning', doesn't it?"
    • The novels had Sulu go the diplomatic route, the most 'correct' decision. Nog used his Hat and bribed the Klingons. Chekov self-destructed his ship, taking the Klingons with him. However the explosion was bad enough the lifepods of the crew were also taken out. Expanded Universe has many other characters taking the test. At least one blew up the ship rather than rescue it...
      • Two characters deliberately blew it up, one rationalizing that either it was screwed to hell anyway, or that it was actually working with the enemy to lure him into a trap. The other was completely apathetic to the plight of the Maru's crew, and simply exploited the ship's volatile cargo to win the fight with the Klingons.
      • Scotty in the Expanded Universe is mentioned to have beaten it by constantly improvising new and ingenious engineering solutions, forcing the computer to respond by amping up the stakes, leading Scotty to perform yet another off-the-cuff fix and so forth. This kept Scotty and the Computer at a stalemate for hours until it was shut down by the Examiners who determined that the only way that the Computer could potentially beat Scotty would be if he spent several days of outwitting it before collapsing out of sheer exhaustion. Scotty then protested that if he had access to an actual engineering room, he could have beaten the simulation. This got him transferred to the Engineering Corp, which turned out to be Scotty's original intention.
      • And then there's always unpredictable Commander Riker, who is alluded to have brought an EVA suit into the simulation so that he could fight the enemy ships with his fists.
      • Spock dryly comments in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that the explosions and smoke effects do not do wonders for the equipment. Or the trainees.
      • One of the novels has Kirk's nephew save the ship by sacrificing himself, challenging the enemy commander (Romulan rather than Klingon in this version) to single combat and having the Enterprise beam off the Kobayashi Maru crew and run away while he fights to the death. As he puts it during the simulation, "It's a no-win scenario, Mr. Spock, I'll give you that. But only for me." The admiral in command assumes he must have cheated like his uncle, but Spock explains that it all would've worked. It's just that Peter Kirk knew far more about Romulan culture (including a formal challenge predating the Vulcan/Romulan schism that — if properly given — is punishable by death to refuse, even if issued by a non-Romulan) than a cadet normally would.
      • A Star Trek: Enterprise novel depicts the origin of the Kobayashi Maru scenario, which is not a simulation. In addition to being outnumbered, Captain Archer discovers that the enemy ships have a device that can take remote control of his ship's systems. He ends up having to flee and allow the Kobayashi Maru to be destroyed. That's why it's known as a no-win scenario.
    • Referenced in Dog Soldiers, when a platoon on a training exercise finds out their "opponents" have bugged their communications: "It's the Kobayashi Maru test — they've fixed it so we can't fucking win!"
    • Two different expanded universe sources touch on the only other cadet to beat the Kobayashi Maru — Nog. In the Starfleet Academy comic series and a short story, both in different, and very "Ferengi" fashions.
    • In Dreadnought!, the Mary Sue heroine, after her simulated crew has been nearly wiped out by the Klingons, ties her communicator into the Starfleet Headquarters computer. (She confuses the computer with an emergency priority code that is perfectly valid in-simulation, but shouldn't work out-of-sim.) She then uses the computer's power to run the entire simulated ship — briefly. The simulation, and SFHQ, crash before the final Klingon victory. The instructors call this a qualified tie, and tell her not to do it again.
    • One episode of Star Trek: Voyager had Tuvok give the test to a group of Maquis crewmen. After they immediately jump into a Blaze-Of-Glory attack, he asks why they didn't just retreat.
  • Apollo 13: "If I had a dollar for every time they killed me in this thing (the simulator), I wouldn't have to work for you, Deke."
    • In Real Life, initially, the only rule the simulation supervisors had was that they couldn't throw a Kobayashi Maru situation at the astronauts and Mission Control; the logic was that a no-win scenario would simply demoralize the team to no good purpose. There had to be at least one solution; however, there was no rule stating that the solution had to be obvious or logical or even remotely fair, just that there had to be a point where the controllers and astronauts could be shown: "This is where you screwed up; now learn from it." In the aftermath of Apollo 13, they realized that if they'd been thrown that particular scenario (total loss of oxygen and power in the command/service module), it would have been rejected as Unwinnable; from Apollo 14 forwards, the new rule for simulation disaster scenarios was: "anything goes".
      • They did, however, go through a variation of the "lunar lifeboat" procedure in at least one training scenario, where there was a pressure drop (but not a loss of power) in the command module, which helped when things went to pot on the actual flight.
  • The Agent training scenario in The Matrix ("Were you listening to me, Neo, or were you looking at the woman in the red dress?") Even Neo is fooled into thinking it was the real thing. The scenario is designed to always end with the trainee's death, because a human cannot beat an Agent. The only recourse when faced with one is to attempt escape, and even that is iffy at best.
    • Although not intentionally unwinnable, the building jump scenario is this as well. Nobody makes the first jump.
  • The virtual reality wargaming scenes in Avalon.
  • Subverted at the beginning of The Avengers (1998), where Steed is attacked by a number of opponents while walking along a street. He wins all of the combats, after which it's revealed that he was just being tested on his fighting skills by the Ministry.
  • Used at the very beginning of Mind Hunters.
  • In Moving Violations, the corrupt judge and policeman set up an unwinnable driving course to ensure the traffic-school students will all fail, allowing the pair to sell off their cars and keep the money.
  • In The Recruit, the protagonist is kidnapped from his CIA training and held captive by what he believes to be enemy operatives; the scenario is actually a test to see how he reacts and how long he lasts. Upon his release, he laments having eventually broken and is informed that that is the point of the exercise—it doesn't stop until you break.

    Literature 
  • In Blade of Tyshalle, the College of Battle Magic has an advanced class that opens with the Lakefront simulation. In it, our student Actor is put into a VR simulation of Overworld, in the docks of the city of Ankhana, where he/she hears the sound of a woman being assaulted down a nearby alley by a single man. Those actors who confront the man will quickly find out that there are two others waiting on the low rooftops to jump some fool like you rushing to her aid. Even defeating all three won't do; the best student in the College, Kris Hansen, got that far only to be knifed by the woman, who is in on the charade. When Hari Michaelson, a Labour-caste near-dropout with terrible magick skills, enters the challenge, he becomes the first person in the history of the College to beat the simulation. Not bothering with spells, he gets the jump on the first man, KOs the other two before they can recover from jumping into the alley, and knows better than to trust the woman, who gets her throat cut when she tries to knife him. He only fails because the test expected him to use magick, and the instructor hacked the simulation to bring the other players back to life and beat him senseless, something that was never before needed for the Lakefront sim.
  • "The two .38s roared simultaneously". James Bond concludes something like this in the first chapter of Moonraker, which is basically a quick-drawing contest. He puts the other "guy" (a cardboard target) in hospital, but is "killed".
  • This occurs several times in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, especially the X-Wing books. As in Real Life, cockpit-shaped simulators are essential tools for fighter pilot training — but here, holographic and gravity-altering technology makes the simulations much more realistic. They get used for all kinds of things, from training to testing new tactics to teamwork-building exercises, and they tend to be either this trope or Fictional Video Game. There are even a few times when the one in the simulator doesn't know it's a sim.
    • Most notably, Michael A. Stackpole's Star Wars: X-Wing opens with prospective Rogue Squadron pilots training by playing the Redemption scenario, which is so infamously difficult that it's earned the in-universe nickname of the "Requiem scenario." Four X-Wings are tasked with defending the corvette Korolev from waves of TIE Fighters and Bombers launched by an Imperial frigate. The "by the book" strategy developed by pilots is for two X-Wings to engage the TIEs as they're launched while the other two stay behind to guard the corvette, otherwise the Imperial frigate would join the battle and make a terrible situation even worse. Corran Horn only wins the mission by taking out the more dangerous TIE Bombers with his proton torpedoes before finishing off the enemy fighters, and even then he lucks out after barely "surviving" a head-on engagement that damaged the last remaining enemy fighter enough for a torpedo to catch up with it.
      • The best part is that this mission is based in-universe on an actual historical battle, and out-of-universe on an actual Scrappy Level from the X-Wing flight sim. The strategy the pilots use in the book is not only the recommended way to beat the level, but canonically the way the skirmish was won.
    • When future Wraith Squadron pilot Myn Donos' first command is wiped out, the disaster is made into a hellish training sim the other Wraiths are subjected to (while they wonder why Donos is excused from it). Later, after they've learned the reason and Myn is suffering a Heroic BSOD, they place him in the simulation while he's asleep in a desperate attempt to get through to him.
    • Another book, Death Star, has a pilot compulsively replaying a simulation that had been made from a scan of one of the top fighter pilots. Even as a simulation, the top pilot kept gunning down the compulsive pilot within seconds, but this pilot was pleased to note that he was lasting a couple seconds more than when he'd started.
      • Later in the book, that same top pilot is said to have engaged in a practice fighter duel with Darth Vader and lasted about the same amount of time. The viewpoint pilot, who'd seen it and been morbidly fascinated, swore that if he was ever in Vader's sights, he'd just overload his engines and kill himself.
  • In the novel Reach by Edward Gibson the Wayfarer 2 astronauts are approaching their destination when one looks out the window to find they're about to collide with...his house! It turns out they're in the simulator, and the people running it were trying to demonstrate the importance of staying focused even when something unexpected happens.
  • Mentioned in one of the Artemis Fowl books. In one of her LEP exams, Holly defeated a simulation that pitted her against insurmountable numbers by blasting the projector. The computer recorded defeat of all enemies, so she passed.
  • Ender’s Game: Pretty much all of the games in the school when Ender is given his own team are designed to be unwinnable. Of course, he wins them all.
    • Also inverted at the end, when Ender discovers all the "simulations" since he left Battle School were actual space battles. The deception was crucial both because the military commanders believed fighting the Hive Mind Buggers required no hesitation over the lives of real soldiers, and because the final "simulation" was unwinnable by any conventional means. Ender, thinking that it was all just another unbeatable test, decides he can't take it anymore and tries to show that he is too savage to be allowed to actually command, by destroying the enemy home world, sacrificing his own fleet in a kamikaze attack. When he finds out that he ordered actual soldiers to their deaths — as well as utterly destroying an entire alien race — Ender feels incredibly guilty.
    • The battle school also has a fantasy game that all the children play (used to monitor their psychological development and stability). Within this game is a section called "The Giant's Drink". A giant offers the Player Character a choice of two drinks, claiming one is poison and the other leads to Fairyland. Of course, no matter what the player chooses, they die a gruesome death. It's supposed to be a gauge of a child's suicidal tendencies (Battle School being a stressful place). Ender ultimately confounds this by killing the giant instead, forcing the game to invent entirely new sections that had never existed before and generally freaking out the Powers That Be.
  • Almost every novel in Honor Harrington has simulator runs, some of which are indeed meant to be (nearly) unwinnable. More often than not, however, it is Honor Harrington herself who sets up the exercise. Most notable example is found in On Basilisk Station where her ship is built as a testbed for a new weapon system that is obviously an unworkable idea as it requires very close proximity. In the first exercise she manages to "kill" the King Roger, flagship of the Manticoran fleet. She does not manage to repeat the feat, however, as her ship is thereafter targeted as soon as it appears and "killed" with overwhelming firepower.
    • When Harrington is on medical leave and instructing at Saganami Island, she arranges for selected cadets to participate in extracurricular simulations. When she plays the Opposing Force, the students pass if they somehow manage to survive the simulated battle. Justified in that Harrington is universally recognized as one of the top naval commanders of her era and her opponents are college-aged (18-25) officer cadets.
    • While training the new LAC squadrons in Echoes of Honor, an admiral opposed to the idea kept stacking the deck against the officers doing the trial exercises to get a decisive defeat to occur and discredit the whole idea. Alice Truman, the officer in charge of the LACs fully expected one of these eventually as a result and sent notices to even higher ranked officers to make them aware of the situation to ensure the LACs would still be evaluated fairly—paying particular note to the fact Truman's LACs kept winning anyway.
  • Early in Otherland, the barbarian Thargor gets killed. Then we find out it was a virtual RPG and meet the kid playing Thargor.
    • Still, Thargor's death was pretty traumatic, since in this MMORPG, a character's death is permanent and the player spent years grinding on that character until he was the most powerful in the whole game.
  • The first book of the Sten series has the title character put through one of these during his basic training ... but it's not really a test. Instead, it's an excuse, by claiming he handled the situation badly, to pretend he's being washed out of training and kicked out of the service in disgrace. He's actually being transferred to Mantis Section, the elite commando force. Sten isn't told this in advance.
  • Early in the novel Gravity by Tess Garritsenn, there is a scene of a catastrophic space-shuttle launch that turns out to be a simulation. A higher-up had expressed concern that the team members were overconfident, so the instructors tried to take them down a notch and remind them, "Disaster is not theoretical."
  • In the Culture novel Surface Detail a protagonist in an Orbital militia does one of these and complains that it serves no purpose.
  • One of the later Animorphs books begins this way, with the Yeerks supposedly invading the Hork-Bajir valley. Used to demonstrate how unprepared everyone is, especially with all the families hiding there.
  • Arkady Bogdanov is in charge of landing simulations for the Ares in Red Mars. He takes an inordinate amount of glee in "problem runs," making everyone groan when the announcement comes over the loudspeaker. (The actual landing on Mars goes off without a hitch.)
  • Parodied in Myth-Quoted, in which the opening scene (quickly revealed to be a training simulation) shows Skeeve being beleaguered by a chaotic and brutal mob of reporters.
  • In Sergey Lukyanenko's Cripples, the protagonists are hired to "tame" the AI of a newly-built warship commissioned by a human colony. The colonists angered the Halflings, who built the ship, by haggling over the price, a big no-no in Halfling culture (since it devalues their work). So the Halflings found a loophole in their contract and programmed the ship's AI to reject the commands of any crew which it finds "unworthy". The only way to prove a crew's worthiness is to resolve a critical situation in such a way that the AI would never be able to do. They go on a dangerous mission to destroy several powerful robotic ships left to guard a Negative Space Wedgie. They succeed, but only with the help of the local human colony. The AI considers that a failure since they didn't do it on their own. The protagonist finally finds a solution. Like most human ships, this one is infested with rats, which no one has been able to get rid of and which will, eventually, chew through enough cables to permanently damage the AI. The protagonist offers an ingenious solution to the problem, and the AI agrees to follow the orders of any human crew.

    Live Action TV 
  • Star Trek
    • In addition to its original appearance, the Kobayashi Maru simulation is found or mentioned in a number of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes. (TNG also includes fresh instances and variations of the trope; for instance, the Bridge Officer qualification test on the Holodeck in the episode "Thine Own Self", in which Troi realizes that she can only succeed if she orders holographic LaForge to his death).
    • The point of the BO-QT is to impress upon the trainee that you are in charge of a SHIP that has HUNDREDS if not THOUSANDS of lives aboard. Essentially to teach the lesson "Lives of the Many outweigh the lives of the Few, or the One." Even if that One is one of your best, closest friends.
      Riker: "I can't - as much as I care about you, my first duty is to the ship. I can not let any bridge officer serve who's not qualified - I'm sorry."
    • The holodeck in general made for a convenient and simple premise for a lot of invocations of this trope in many of the series. In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode The Magnificent Ferengi where the Ferengi are shown in a botched attempt to rescue Quark and Rom's mother, in which she ends up being shot by one of her rescuers, before it is revealed that they are practicing for the real thing, in a holosuite. It's supposed to be on easy mode, they just suck.
    • Star Trek: Voyager is particularly guilty of someone dying in a Batman Cold Open only to be revealed as a simulation, to the point that you could make a drinking game out of it.
      • The failed invasion of a Borg ship to steal some Phlebotinum that leads to Borg storming the Voyager proves to be a simulation.
      • Tuvok provides an interesting twist in the episode "Worst Case Scenario:" Paris discovered an unfinished "Maquis Rebellion Scenario" that Tuvok never completed since he saw the Maquis having virtually zero problems fitting in. Paris and Torres have fun trying out different scenarios, and it proves to be so popular among the crew that Tuvok is pressured to complete it. When Tuvok and Paris attempt to modify the simulation, however, they find that former Maquis (and defector to the Kazon) Seska had discovered it and rigged it to be a true no-win scenario with Everything Trying to Kill You, and with the safeties disabled, Tuvok and Paris would be Killed Off for Real. The bridge crew couldn't shut it down quickly, but they did have access to the writing interface. So Janeway stepped in by becoming the Deus ex Machina until they could turn it off.
      • Dealt with in an early TNG episode — the holodeck creates some objects in a similar fashion to the replicator and enacting a non-standard shutdown could result in the people inside also being anywhere from partially to completely dematerialized.
      • "Threshold" starts off with Tom Paris trying to break the Warp 10 limit in a shuttle. As he reaches Warp 9.95 the nacelles are ripped off and the shuttle explodes. Paris appears sitting on the holodeck floor and B'Elanna Torres says "You're dead." How they were able to program a simulation for what would happen at Warp 10 without any data on what happens when you approach Warp 10 is unclear, but that's the least of the problems the infamous episode has.
      • Subverted in the first season finale "Learning Curve" when Tuvok puts several ex-Maquis members of the Voyager crew through a crash course in Starfleet procedures. Among them is a combat simulation on the holodeck, which spawns a number of D'deridex-class warbirds that handily defeat his trainees. In this case, the sim did have a success condition according to Tuvok: Retreat.
    • Mackenzie Calhoun found an interesting way to get through the Kobayashi Maru in Stone And Anvil: he gives the orders to destroy the ship himself.
    • Proving that Starfleet isn't blind to all those "How I Flunked The Kobayashi Maru Test" stories circulating among cadets, Wesley Crusher on TNG was subjected to a different kind of simulated no-win scenario during his Academy training. A faked "accident" left two technicians trapped in a room that would soon flood with radiation, and Wesley was given time to save only one of them. Unable to talk the more terrified man into moving, he helped the injured one to safety and reluctantly left the other behind. Unlike the traditional test this was just for entrance into the academy, and designed to make him face what they had determined was his greatest fear (being in the situation Picard had faced when unable to save Wesley's father on an away mission).
      • His encounter in the books led to a disaster in "Boogeymen."
    • The episode of TNG in which Picard, Crusher, and Worf storm a Cardassian base also uses this.
  • Power Rangers is fond of this one, using it in episodes of Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue ("Trial by Fire"), Power Rangers Ninja Storm ("There's No 'I' In Team"), Power Rangers S.P.D. ("Beginnings"), and Power Rangers RPM ("Ranger Red").
    • "Gung-Ho" from MMPR is a very interesting twist — using the carrier zord, Titanus as this.
  • Stargate SG-1 does it with "Avatar", wherein Teal'c is trapped in a training simulation designed to learn from him and become harder to beat as a result. It did this by either spawning enemies right around corners to shoot him, spawning new enemies after the conditions of the simulation had been beaten, and adding factors to make the enemies harder to beat. It took Daniel being added in as an ally (with the ability to see the future as a cheat) for the computer to finally give Teal'c a victory scenario.
    • Worse, it turns out it was a reverse-Clap Your Hands If You Believe scenario. Since Teal'c's mind was driving the game, it turns out that Teal'c had to believe he'd won or every time, he'd find that The Computer Is a Cheating Bastard and would change the rules on him. And he could never see the battle against the Goa'uld finally being over.
    • An early episode "The Gamekeeper" had the SG-1 team trapped in a simulation of one of the most terrible moments of their lives and tasked with changing the outcome. However, the entire simulation is rigged, as whatever they try to do causes the simulation to merely alter things so whatever did happen happens anyway. The team "wins" by simply refusing to play the game anymore, causing the titular Gamekeeper to let them leave or so it seems...
    • Stargate Atlantis has a blatant one in "Progeny" where they think they escaped, make it back to Atlantis and then the city gets attacked by 9 hive ships with 15 more on the way. Sheppard has to stay behind to trigger the self-destruct.
    • Stargate Universe also uses the trope in "Trial and Error". Destiny projects a battle scenario into Young's dreams wherein the ship is attacked by aliens. Young tries to attack them, but they overpower and destroy the ship. Young tries to turtle behind the shields until the ship can jump to FTL, but the simulation just generates more ships. Then he tries to agree to their demands (handing over Chloe), but that just causes the shields to drop, allowing the aliens to board and kill everyone. Young never wins; Rush just shuts it off when he gets tired of it interfering with the ship.
  • War of the Worlds
  • MacGyver, multiple times ("Lost Love", "The Survivors").
  • In the short-lived series Heist, a cliffhanger has professional thief Mickey locking himself in a vault to motivate his team members to figure out how to open it quickly before he suffocates. The next episode begins with the team members apparently failing to unlock the vault in time, only for Mickey to yell at them and for the camera to reveal the giant hole they had cut in the vault to get him out.
  • In The Listener, paramedic main character Toby and his partner get stuck while trying to reach a woman with a head wound. She is annoyed, but amused; if it hadn't been an exam, she could have died.
  • Referenced as an Actor Allusion in Leverage where the hacker Chaos (played by Wil Wheaton) is called the "Kobayashi Maru" by the government since his attacks are good enough as to be effectively unwinnable.
  • In CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, David Hodges also mentions that he called his cat Kobayashi Maru (affectionately known as 'Kobe' or 'Mr. K').
  • The third season premiere of Chuck.
  • Happened a few times in ER. Abby was working with a dying patient, with Romano briskly telling at her to move faster, only for the patient to die. Then, just as Romano solemnly and brutally told her that the patient was dead, the camera swiveled around to show us that the patient was a dummy.
    • Another time was when Sam and a much taller, muscular man were yelling at each other when suddenly the man tackled Sam to the ground, where we can see that there are mats on the ground. Turns out it was a training session for nurses to deal with violent patients.
  • One episode of Cleopatra 2525 featured a variant of this trope where one character had to learn the nearly impossible route and hazards of a rescue mission using a virtual reality simulator (in time to actually make the run and save a teammate). Of course, nobody bothers to tell her it's a simulation the first time so for her the trope is in effect like she's in the audience until she fails and sees her friend die before the simulation resets.
  • An episode of JAG ends with Harm crashing on a carrier landing. Turns out Harm was running a simulation of the doomed flight of the Defendant of The Week. It's implied that Harm's run the simulation several times, crashed every time, and went down with the jet, rather than eject, every time.
  • In the blow-off for Warehouse 13's third season, when the Big Bad Walter Sykes traps Myka in a chair and forces H.G. Wells to play chess for her life. Wells recollects her mentor's proclivities, and breaks the rules to win the game.
  • The opening to one episode of The Wire shows Michael Lee being trained in a gunfight simulation with paint guns by Chris Partlow and Snoop, who are The Dragon and The Brute respectively for a ruthless drug organization and have at least 22 kills between them, while Michael has practically no experience with a gun. Michael wins anyway, foreshadowing his future.
  • The first episode of season 6 of Castle jumps ahead 2 months into what appears to be an Action Prologue demonstrating that Beckett is a. now a federal agent, and b. still a total badass - until she learns too late that the hostage she was protecting was actually another bad guy, when said hostage shoots her several times in the chest. Cut to the office, where she's being questioned about the training exercise the audience had no idea we were watching.

    Video Games 
  • Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core begins with one of these, with Zack and Angeal on a simulated mission to the Sector 1 train station (which was not entirely unlike that of the original game...). At least it explains why Zack was acting so casual with a dozen soldiers firing machine guns at him... At the end of the mission he engages Sephiroth who viciously and effortlessly defeats him, only for Angeal to end the simulation as Sephiroth holds his sword business-edge over Zack's face.
  • James Bond likes this trope. The first mission in GoldenEye: Rogue Agent is one of these. Afterward, the titular agent is fired from MI6 for allowing Bond to be "killed" during the simulated mission at Fort Knox.
    • Which is entirely silly for so many reasons, including the fact that the death wasn't really caused by him (IIRC, Bond is hanging on to a ledge and falls) and getting fired caused the agent to turn evil.
      • Specifically, the helicopter was shot down and crashed through the roof of Fort Knox. Bond was barely hanging from the hanging chopper, and Goldeneye was too far to reach out to him. He had no choice but to let the craft fall on Bond.
    • James Bond does like this trope. In 007: From Russia with Love, the player watches his character get garroted in the cutscene following a lengthy infiltration mission. Turns out it's a training scenario for the Dragon, and the player's character was an evil mook-in-a-mask rather than Bond. As this same scene (minus the infiltration) happens in the original movie, the player shouldn't be too surprised.
  • Ninja Gaiden for the original Xbox begins with what turns out to have been a training mission. What makes this a bit disconcerting is the fact that you kill a good 200 ninjas (absolutely no ambiguity about whether they're dead or just knocked out here) before the audience is let in on this.
    • It's All There in the Manual: the rival ninja clan is, well, a rival ninja clan, enemies of the Hayabusa ninjas. Ryu murders them. But the leader of the rival ninja clan is, in fact, his uncle, and so they don't really fight to the death. Unless Ryu loses.
  • Space Quest V opens with Roger Wilco at the helm of a spaceship facing a dire red alert situation (a direct homage to the Kobayashi Maru scenario). He's then interrupted by on the viewscreen by an actual captain who tells him to stop messing around in the spaceship simulator and get back to class.
  • Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force couldn't resist: the game opens with you playing as Ensign Munro with an away team on a Borg cube. Then things go horribly wrong and you end up killing yourself and your team mates, only to reveal that's a Holodeck simulation all along. True to form, Tuvok is there to tell you what a sorry excuse for a Starfleet officer you are. Even worse, he tells you, as you board the turbolift, to consider the scenario to be your personal Kobayashi Maru.
  • Starfleet Academy games tend to have the actual Kobayashi Maru as a level. In the old PC version by Interplay, you're given the option to cheat in a similar way to Kirk — in fact, you have to in order to get the best ending. Your bridge crew's reactions when the Klingons recognize you are priceless.
    • In the SNES version, the only way to get the Kirk ending was to play as Kirk — by inputting a Cheat Code at the name selection menu (you could only select from a limited amount of preexisting names), enabling you to name your cadet "James T. Kirk". All other name combinations resulted in the standard Kobayashi Maru scenario, with either the loss of the freighter, or the loss of your ship.
  • One of the "Tales from New Terra" short stories from Outpost 2 opens up with a crew heading to the spaceport to fight a fire. It is later revealed that they are firefighters training in a simulator.
  • The Starfleet Adventures mod for Escape Velocity Nova (based on Star Trek: The Original Series and the first six movies — with some things from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that would already have been there but weren't mentioned until the later shows) has the Kobayashi Maru as the first thing the player does. It was designed to be unbeatable for the player (six D-7s versus one Constitution-class), but some players managed to beat it only to find that the dev team hadn't accounted for that.
    • The dev team did have a plan, and mentioned to the public what it was (the player would get a suitably impressed reaction, and would get to jump a rank, getting them access to better officers and stronger ships more quickly). Unfortunately, it hadn't yet been implemented in the last public release... which was in 2010.
  • Demon's Souls all the way.
    • To clarify, the tutorial takes you through all the basics: movement, attacking, defending, counters, items, etc... Then you face your very first boss, who is capable killing you in one hit, no matter what armor you have on, and is very likely to do so... On the off chance that you manage to survive the fight and defeat him, you are transported to another area where a massive (we're talking as big as the whole freaking room) dragon delivers a single instant death punch right to your face in a cutscene, resulting in your death.
  • Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness begins with a simulator involving two powerful Pokémon, Salamence and Metagross, and is quite a difficult battle for one that opens a Pokémon game. It's a bit subverted in that it's deliberately and consistently winnable in exactly one way, but in a way that a beginner (that is, the player character at that moment) shouldn't get.
  • Star Trek Online added in the "No-Win Situation" PVE mode for the Federation players. A team of five players are tasked in protecting a frigate against increasingly difficult foes. Most players can reach level 5 before the frigate is destroyed. The game will send out game-wide notifications for those who pass level 8, 9, and 10, with level 10 having the game proudly boasting that a player "Doesn't Believe In A No-Win Situation".

    Western Animation 
  • The Legion of Super Heroes Season Finale "Sundown: Part 1" opens with the entire team being destroyed one by one by the Fatal Five. Then the simulation ends, and they prep to start again. Phantom Girl is not amused. "There's only so many times a girl can face her simulated doom in one day!"
  • Used in the "Glitter N' Gold" episode of Jem. Jerrica wants to tell her boyfriend, Rio, that she is Jem's secret identity. She uses Synergy, her hologram-making super-computer to make an illusion of Rio to see what will happen; it goes badly. Synergy assumes that she might be wrong—but then the real Rio explodes at Kimber after she reveals that she made a mistake — using almost the exact same words the holographic Rio did. This came from Christy Marx, the writer of most of the episodes of the Jem series, who wanted Jerrica to have a reason to keep her other identity a secret from Rio.
  • Family Guy two parter, Stewie Kills Lois/Lois Kills Stewie
    • Lampshaded when Brian describes it as "a huge middle finger to the viewers."
  • The Powerpuff Girls use a holographic training room in one episode as a Shout-Out to X-men.
  • One Time Squad episode began with the heroes fighting a pyromaniac George Washington in a training simulation (bizarrely this wasn't part of the simulation's design: Larry just wanted to see what would happen if they invited "virtual Washington" for a tour of the space station...)
  • The episode "Failsafe" of Young Justice is one of these that had Gone Horribly Wrong. No matter what, winning was completely impossible. no matter what they did, the situation would continue to get worse and worse until they failed. That said, the simulation ended up having to Ass Pull a second alien mothership to win, so they did pretty well. As for the Gone Horribly Wrong part? Well, M'gann accidentally made the entire team think it was real, not only plunging everyone into extreme trauma, but also nearly trapping everyone who "died" in a coma.
  • The direct-to-video/pilot episode three-parter "The Adventure Begins" of Buzz Lightyear of Star Command has this. At Star Command's training deck, Commander Nebula calls Buzz up to watch one of the rookies, Mira, with the intention of making her Buzz's new partner. Mira beats Buzz's level, Level 9, and goes on to Level 10, which is comprised of three huge and presumably impenetrable robots. Where any normal Ranger, even Buzz (since we never hear that he beat it), would have been blasted to Game Over, Mira succeeds by using her ghosting abilities.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic has Princess Celestia's school for gifted unicorns. The test to get in involves hatching a dragon egg, which Word of God said was unwinnable. When Twilight Sparkle took the test, her magical abilities were exponentially multiplied as a result of Rainbow Dash's Sonic Rainboom, which allowed her to pass the test and, coincidentally, give birth to Spike.

    Webcomics 
  • Erfworld: The Battle for Gobwin Knob IS a Kobayashi Maru, or at least the scenario Parson had been designing that resembled it was. That's likely why Parson was considered the perfect warlord, he had spent months thinking over an unwinnable situation for a tabletop game. In addition to fighting impossible odds, the GM is supposed to cheat, and the only way for the player to win is to cheat the system better or come up with a solution clever enough to impress the GM. Parson ends up destroying his own capital city with the enemy army inside it, slaughtering everyone except himself and a few magic users on his side.
    • At this point, Parson has "won" the battle and is now having to deal with the aftermath. It seems like every story told in Erfworld so far deals with impossible odds.
  • Darths & Droids gives the following advice to GMs: "in a roleplaying scenario, you need not fear setting up unwinnable scenarios. Because, when it comes right down to it, you can never take into account all the sneaky things a group of desperate PCs can get up to. The third option is always there; even if you can't see it, they will."
  • In Quentyn Quinn, Space Ranger, Space Ranger cadets are routinely put into unwinnable sims and graded on how many times they can beat them anyway, each time with the solution they used last time removed. "Impossible" is not a well-respected concept in the ESS Ranger Corps.

    Web Original 
  • The short story "The Op" in the Whateley Universe. The Grunts (the mutant version of JROTC) face an Alien-like threat that has already wiped out a city. They're killed one by one in horrific fashion. The villain of the scenario is Sara as we see just how dangerous she really could be. In full trope mode, they get their asses chewed by Gunny Bardue once the scenario ends.
    • This trope crops up again a while later, in chapter 8 of "Ayla and the Birthday Brawl," where Team Kimba basically goes up against an army and gets their asses handed to them. It looks like they're going to try re-running the same sim in a few days, so we'll see what happens then.
      • It's turned into a Noodle Incident, but Team Kimba used what Ayla learned in "Ayla and the Birthday Brawl" to come up with two ways to win that sim. And apparently, Jade's Crazy Awesome 'Radioactive Condor Girl' idea actually worked. And completely freaked out the people running the sims.
      • Possibly because Ayla's plans were so detailed...See Unspoken Plan Guarantee.

    Other 
  • A prank puzzle called "The Inescapable Island". The teller begins with "imagine that you are stranded on a tiny little island", then goes on to describe with detail how the surrounding sea is vast and borderless and filled with hungry sharks and how the island is a bare spot of sand with thousands of poisonous scorpions and this and that. Once the situation is inescapeable enough, the teller then asks the victim to find out a way to save themself. The only acceptable solution is along the lines of "stop imagining".
  • There's an old joke about a trainee sailor asked how he'd deal with a series of increasingly severe incoming storms; in each case, he answers that he lowers another anchor. When finally asked "Where are you getting all your anchors?" he replies "Same place you're getting all your storms."
  • Parodied in Choose Your Own Adventure style gamebook Trial Of The Clone, where the silent protagonist may be faced with a Kobayashi Maru Expy. You may attempt to honestly face the test which ends the game, shoot a random person instead thus setting you back or cheat in the most ridiculously, stupidly obvious way possible.

    Real life 
  • Part of a typical NASA Astronaut's Training from Hell involves dealing with emergencies in a simulator, though in this case the scenarios used have obscure or complicated solutions, as opposed to no solution at all. The idea here is training the astronauts in Olympic-standard mental gymnastics rather than training them to face death stoically. The latter is part of the job description anyway.
  • Various training simulations for prospective pilots involve the instructor randomly turning things off in order to simulate piloting a heavily damaged or malfunctioning plane. If the instructor so wishes, he can "break" so many of the plane's functions that all the pilot can hope for is a crash landing with a slim possibility of passenger survival.
  • A similar thing is occasionally done in military exercises — the exercise coordinator might at one point say: "Blue Team, your SAMs no longer work", or "OpFor, your fuel dump has been destroyed," so as to train participants to adapt when plans fall apart.
    • The same thing occurs during command training exercises for civilian disaster response: it's typical for the organizers to arbitrarily declare that a given response has failed in order to make the situation worse, or that another situation has sprung up while the agency which would normally deal with it is fully occupied with the first incident.
    • And if all else fails, point to the guy making all the decisions and say "You're dead," then point to the next guy and say "So what do you do?"
  • Training for EMTs and ER personnel often forces them to deal with training scenarios where they have to save a patient and everything going wrong and the patient dying on them, or they do everything correctly and the patient still dies. The entire point of the scenarios is to drive home the fact that they will eventually fail to save a patient and that some of the reasons are outside of their control, but they still have to try.


Unusual User InterfaceSpeculative Fiction TropesUnwitting Test Subject
Training AccidentFalse Crucible    

alternative title(s): Disastrous Training Sim Opening; Kobayashi Maru; The Kobayashi Maru; The No Win Scenario
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