Finagle's Law meets the Rule of Drama. Any time the villain is putting together an Evil Plan, we can always expect it to reach its final stage, no matter what the hero or heroes do to try to stop it. If the villain is trying to collect the ThreeCosmic Keystones that will allow him to become a Physical God, he will assemble them all. If the villain is trying to unseal a Sealed Evil in a Can, it will break free and need to be defeated or re-sealed. If the villain is planning to disgrace the king, Hypnotize the Princess and rule the kingdom, he will accomplish the first two before The Hero stops him. And so on.
No matter what the hero tries, the forces of villainy will inevitably come within inches of victory, forcing one final showdown with everything at stake. This does not mean The Hero must be completely ineffective until this last battle — Dragons may be defeated and minor complications may be done away with. But as for the brunt of the threat, there's no averting it until the eleventh hour. Naturally, once the eleventh hour arrives, The Good Guys Always Win, but they'll cut it close.
This is especially painful to watch when The Hero or otherwise a good guy will attempt to foil the Evil Plan in a way that In-Universe seems like a perfectly good idea, but from a Doylist point of view is too anticlimactic to work. In the best case, they fail at the earliest opportunity in a relatively harmless way. Otherwise, they may appear to be making progress — obstacles will be cleared and the stakes will rise — only for the story to inevitably Yank the Dog's Chain and pull the whole thing into catastrophic failure.
You Are Too Late is often involved. Hostage for MacGuffin, MacGuffin Delivery Service, and Xanatos Gambit are frequently employed to make the hero effective without routing the villain. Team Rocket Wins can give the heroes more of a challenge and justify failing at first.
Compare Your Princess Is in Another Castle and Unspoken Plan Guarantee (the unspoken plan is stage two).
Due to the nature of this trope, all examples are likely to be spoilers.
FORCE looks set to use this too, with the Huckebein having kicked hero tail thus far in the first major engagement.
In Mahou Sensei Negima! manga's Kyoto arc, not only did Negi fail to thwart Stage One — stopping bad guys from kidnapping Konoka, he also failed to thwart Stage Two — saving Konoka to stop the Demon God from being summoned — and even failed in defeating the said Demon God after it was summoned. It took a Villainous Rescue by Evangeline to save the day.
Similarily in the immediately following Festival arc, Negi lost the entire game and only rectified that through the use of time travel.
Double Subverted in YuYu Hakusho: The Big Bad of the Dark Tournament arc is revealed to have a plan to make a portal to the demon world, but it stopped when he was still gaining sufficient funds. However, the villains of the next arc have the same plan, but already have the means to do so.
The Chapter Black saga also mostly plays it straight, as the heroes fail to prevent Kuwabara from being kidnapped, fail to stop the opening of the portal, and destroy the barrier themselves. While they prevent a demon invasion, they learn that they were playing into Sensui's alternate plan.
In One Piece, during the Water 7 arc, the Straw Hats try to get Robin to come back to the crew on several occasions, but fail each attempt due to CP9 threatening the Straw Hats with the Buster Call, which prevents her from coming back. It takes them breaking into the heavily defended Enies Lobby, convincing Robin she's one of them and saving her just before she is to be taken beyond their reach.
Similarly, in the Impel Down arc, Luffy doesn't manage to save Ace inside Impel Down, but has to go all the way to Marine Headquarters. He ultimately fails, despite managing to free Ace from the execution platform.
Also the case with Blackbeard's plans, which go off without a hitch all the way through killing Whitebeard, stealing his Devil Fruit power, and taking his place as one of the Four Emperors. This is even lampshaded by Blackbeard and his crew often talking about fate's role in their plan, as if recognizing that this trope would come into effect.
One way Rukia's execution falls into this trope is in Ichigo failing to prevent Byakuya and Renji from arresting her, and it takes Ichigo until the last possible second to show up to save her. In another way, while the heroes prevented Aizen from getting the Hogyoku as a result of Rukia's execution, he managed to find another way and escaped to Hueco Mundo.
And then averted with the end of the arrancar arc. Assuming Aizen had won that battle, he'd still have to create the King's Key and beat Squad Zero. Since that involves the destruction of Karakura and the deaths of 100,000 people, including many the heroes know, it's clear why they can't let him succeed.
In the Bount Arc, villains successfully invade Soul Society and almost blow it up.
The Zanpakuto Tales arc also follows this with Muramasa's true plan, as Ichigo unknowingly helps Muramasa acquire control of Ryujinjakka by attacking him with Getsuga Tensho, and Muramasa manages to unseal Kouga.
In Fullmetal Alchemist, Father plans on using Amestris to make a philosopher stone, like he did with Xerxes 400 years ago, which requires tunnels being dug throughout the countries, bloody battles taking place at critical points on the circle, and five people who have opened the gate being gathered. The presence of Pride makes destroying the tunnels impossible, so the heroes plan on defeating Father before "The Promised Day" arrives. During the siege of Central, Father manages to gather Hohenheim, Ed, Al, Izumi, and Roy as his sacrifices. This is justified, as the centuries-old plan was already nearing the final stage when Ed and Al were born. Technically speaking, the plan is never thwarted at all — it's reversed after being completed.
In Chouja Reideen, the heroes are completely unable to stop the Chouma from gathering the Zodiac Orbs by the simple problem of the fact that they don't even know they exist, much less that the enemy is gathering them.
In Dragon Ball Z, the Big Bad of each season will always reach his strongest transformation, especially in cases where this involves absorbing somebody. However, the only strong characters have chronic cases of Honor Before Reason and typically let the enemy get to their maximum power so that there's no doubt of who's the strongest when it's over. The most straightforward and egregious example being the beginning of the Buu saga, wherein Goku and Vegeta, who were at least twice as strong as The Dragon and hundreds of times stronger than the Big Bad, not only failed to stop Buu's revival but agreed to cause it so they they could settle their infighting. Cue 60+ episodes of trying to undo the damage. Subverted in the Frieza arc, as although Frieza was allowed to power up to full by the heroes, he never got to wish for immortality (his actual goal).
Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo, being a parody of shonen series, manages to double-subvert this. When Czar Baldy Bald III, the arc's Big Bad, is about to emerge from a century of cryogenic freezing, Bo-bobo seals him back in, throws the container around a bit, and then blows it up. However, the Czar had managed to escape through his martial art:magic.
In Mai-Otome, the protagonists make moves against Nagi's plans for the first 16 episodes, but are unable to accomplish enough to stop him from taking over Windbloom or activating the Harmonium, leading up to an attempt to liberate Windbloom, destroy the Harmonium and defeat him.
In Naruto, the leaders of Akatsuki need to seal all nine of the Tailed Beast for their overall and personal goals to be completed. Inevitably, all but two are sealed and Tobi is able to compensate for the missing beasts by using smaller pieces of their chakra.
Not only are the Beasts sealed, but the Juubi is reborn and Tobi manages to seal it into himself. Despite his overwhelming power, he is defeated only for the real Big Bad Madara to reform the Juubi again and seal it into himself.
Madara takes this one step further as he cannot complete his plan unless he acquires both Rinnegan. Despite the efforts of the heores he succeeds and enacts the Infinite Tsukiyomi.
At the end of Part I, Orochimaru's plan to steal Sasuke succeeds, ensuring future and highly personal conflicts with Orochimaru and Sasuke.
In Katekyo Hitman Reborn!, the Big Bad of the Inheritance Ceremony Arc, Daemon Spade, manages to steal Mukuro's body near the end of the arc. He receives a massive power boost since he now has access to his full power, and the rest of the arc consists of the final battle against him.
A variant on this was standard procedure in Silver AgeDC Comics: The villain would always pull off one or two crimes with a given modus operandi before the hero beat him. Lampshaded by the Penguin, who commented that if you actually look at the numbers, he defeated Batman more often than Batman defeated him (people just remember Batman's victories because the Penguin went to jail afterward).
Humorously deconstructed in the Astro City "Show 'Em All" — the Junkman pulls off a major heist without a hitch, and lives a life of luxury while everyone wonders who was the brilliant criminal who committed the robbery. However, he is soon frustrated at not getting recognition for the coup and the public's assumption that the heroes caught the criminal somehow. This drives him to repeat the plan again — albeit with deliberately-induced minor flaws — until he becomes famous for the initial robbery. He is eventually arrested and sits through a high-profile trial, at which point he escapes the consequences anyway.
An aversion happened in the Sin City story Family Values. Throughout this graphic novel, Dwight and Miho decimate an entire mob family with only a few instances where it's possible that Dwight may be killed or arrested. The drama actually comes from the mystery surrounding the reason why Old Town is going after this mob family and how the random pieces of information all link together.
True to its roots as Nanoha fanfic, (On the) Path of Vengeance sees Akira managing to collect the parts of and assemble the Sword of Light before he gets stopped.
In book 2 the Akatsuki are able to kidnap Naruto and start extracting the Fox, before the demon makes a Heroic Sacrifice and Naruto's friends show up to rescue him.
In book 4 Gouki is able to become Raikage, then take over the Waterfall and Grass countries, and then the Rain country; before the good guys start disrupting his plans.
Averted in The Fall Of Lord Frieza when Raichi AI and Babidi's ship's cross paths in deep space. Hatchiyak is sent out to annihilate Babidi's ship, causing everyone inside to die of exposure and thus end the Buu Saga before it even begins.
Played straight in Yognapped with Project Ironskies, which ends up succeeding up to the halfway point of its final phase, resulting in the armed extermination of millions of Minecraftia citizens. Justified in that Simon and Lewis were unaware of the plot's scale until minutes prior, and were in fact being exploited for their blood by the main antagonist.
The Incredibles: Syndrome managed to launch his robot before the heroes were able to take him down.
Star Trek: In Star Trek: Generations, Picard and Kirk can use the Nexus to travel anywhere in time or space to thwart Doctor Soran's plan to blow up a star. They decide to go to Soran's launch site, a few minutes before Soran fires the missile. Not, say, half an hour earlier, before Soran realized Picard had discovered him. Or six hours earlier, before Soran had arrived to prep the missile. Or back to the Enterprise, two weeks earlier, when Picard could have radioed the science station to warn them about Soran's secret lab and the Romulan commando raid. Or three weeks earlier, when Picard could have emailed his brother to suggest he take that year's family vacation at Eurodisney rather than the Lethal Fire Caves of Vraxinor IX.
Star Wars: Played straight in A New Hope, where the Death Star was in firing range of the rebel base before it was destroyed. In Return of the Jedi, they destroy the Death Star while it's under construction, but it still counts because the Death Star is already operational, halfway through wiping out the Rebel fleet, and luring the Rebels there was the Emperor's plan all along.
As the middle film of the trilogy, the whole of The Empire Strikes Back is this trope, as the Rebels get chased off Hoth, Han and Leia spend the entire film on the run (before they get captured anyway and Han gets carbon-frozen), and Luke screws up his Jedi training, loses his hand, and gets severely emotionally traumatized.
George Lucas has stated that this was to give the trilogy the plot of a three-act play, in which the worst part always comes in Act II.
In Revenge of the Sith, the good guys are, of course, doomed to failure, since otherwise the original trilogy wouldn't happen. If you watch the series in chronological order, their failure to stop Palpatine in Sith becomes this trope in play.
Batman Begins: The League of Shadows manages to start spreading the toxin throughout Gotham (and are most of the way to blowing up its water mains) before they are defeated.
Rocky III restores the drama by having the now-champion Rocky lose his title at the beginning of the movie to Clubber Lang, from whom he eventually regains it.
In Sherlock Holmes, the Big Bad says early on that he will kill three people and Holmes will fail to save any of them. He succeeds in doing so, but Holmes thwarts his plan before he can attack his fourth and final target.
Likewise in the sequel, the Big Bad Moriarty is always one step ahead of Holmes, managing to pull off his schemes without a hitch while distracting and misleading the good detective at every turn. By the end of the film, with minutes left to go, it looks like The Bad Guy Wins — until Holmes reveals the fruition of his Batman Gambit to get Moriarty's notes ,which allow the police to dismantle his financial empire. Even at this stage, Holmes's Awesome by Analysis fighting style (which Moriarty is also capable of) predicts that he will be on the receiving end of a Curb-Stomp Battle from Moriarty unless he performs the iconic Heroic Sacrifice over Reichenbach Falls.
In Collateral, Vincent kills all but one of the people on his hit list, although it's not until the fourth one that Max begins actively trying to stop him.
In Avatar, Jake and the Na'vi fail to repel the human invasion until the last possible opportunity.
In The Manchurian Candidate remake, all efforts to reach out to Marco fail until he decides at the last possible second to have himself and his mother get shot instead of the president-elect, thwarting the conspiracy's plans.
Austin Powers subverts this in the third film, Goldmember. Austin and Her Majesty's Secret Service manage to catch Dr. Evil and his minions in the planning stages of their latest scheme to Take Over the World, and send Dr. Evil to jail. It's then Double Subverted when Dr. Evil breaks out and continues the Evil Plan anyway, thanks to having already set things up with Goldmember via time travel. Dr. Evil later lampshades this in song:
Dr. Evil: "Austin caught me in the first act/ It's all backwards, what's with that?"
Surprisingly averted in Johnny English. The titular agent gets too close to the Big Bad's attempt to kidnap and impersonate the Archbishop of Canterbury, so he abandons that plan.
Gremlins: Billy and his mom almost succeed in killing the first five gremlins, which would end the movie, but of course the head gremlin just manages to elude him and replicate by jumping into a swimming pool.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider would have ended a lot sooner if Lara Croft had followed her father's instructions and destroyed her half of the Triangle of Light. Or wouldn't happen at all if her father destroyed it years before the action of the film.
In Hush, Helen, who is expected to give birth at any minute, manages to hijack a car and get the hell away from the mansion of her insane mother-in-law who has been holding her hostage for the purpose of taking her baby from her and then killing her. So Helen drives around in blind panic for several minutes, finally manages to find a nearby highway, and collapses in exhaustion at the side of the road, raising her hand in desperation for someone to pick her up and get her to a hospital... And, what, five seconds later a car pulls by... And it's her evil mother-in-law! What are the odds of that! Said Evil mother-in-law then takes her back to the house so they can both be there for her giving birth.
In the Apocalypse film series movie Revelation, the Haters attempt to thwart the Antichrist Franco Maccalousso's Day of Wonders virtual reality program from going live by uploading a virus into the program. While they succeed in doing so by the end of the movie through a miracle, the virus only delays the program from going live, as it is seen in full use in the following movie Tribulation.
And while the first and third (as well as the fourth, but there's no movie after that one) ended with Franco being exposed to the entire world, it never seems to stick, as he's still comfortably in power at the start of the next movie. The most acknowledgement we get is that by the fourth movie Franco wants to hold a show trial against Helen to boost his popularity.
In the second Hellboy movie, the plot could have ended halfway in if Liz melted their piece of the MacGuffin immediately after they got it instead of waiting until after losing it to the villain and having to defeat him to get it back.
In Kung Fu Panda 2, the heroes are unable to stop Lord Shen from stealing metal for his cannons, conquering Gongmen City, building up his army, or leaving the city to conquer the rest of China. Po is only able to stop him at pretty much the last possible moment.
In Transcendence, RIFT tries to nip things in the bud by destroying AI labs across the country, but the data survives and is melded with PINN to upload Will's mind and create a sentient AI. Then they try to prevent Will from going global, but Evelyn is able to network him before they get there.
Also averted: One of the past plans Dr. Impossible mentions never even got to the evil stage before being shut down: the plan that created superhero Fatale.
In The Amulet of Samarkand, the first installment of The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Lovelace manages to trap the British government and summon Ramuthra before he is defeated.
Angels and Demons, where The Dragon manages to kill all four of the Preferiti before the plan is stopped. Subverted in the film, where Langdon saves the fourth from his watery death.
The Seventh Tower series ends with the heroes fighting the Big Bad to regain the Violet Keystone - if they're too slow, their world's defense fails. They catch up to him just when he's summoning his army.
Subverted somewhat in Dune. Baron Harkonnen's plan to take over Arrakis, destroy House Atreides, and eventually place his nephew on the Imperial throne has several important factors go wrong from the beginning (such as Paul and Jessica surviving and his second-in-commandPiter being killed before he could assume control of Arrakis, and keeping a member of the Atreides staff alive and in his employ). The repercussions of these factors ultimately ruin the Baron, and probably meant that his plan wouldn't have succeeded in any case. As the Princess Irulan said, "A beginning is a very delicate thing".
Inverted in the Megamorphs book Elfangor's Secret, where the heroes thwart stage one by saving Henry V at Agincourt but fail to prevent Visser 4 from killing George Washington and Admiral Nelson. They win in the end, though.
Inverted in another way by going back in time decades before stage one and thwarting the entire effort.
Averted in The Obsidian Trilogy, when the Endarkened's first tactic is defeated before they can destroy their enemies. It still did a lot of damage before it was stopped, though, and they had other plans already starting to be implemented at the time.
The Left Behind series includes several points where the main characters could probably disrupt the plans of The Antichrist, averting the Tribulation entirely (or at least greatly throwing off the predestined order of events). They usually either reason that they cannot or should not, because the Tribulation is God's will.
The Doom of Mandos is basically a divinely-ordained version of this in The Silmarillion. The Noldor and everyone associated with them are doomed to fail in all their efforts against Morgoth until they ask the Valar for forgiveness, and they only do when Morgoth has pretty much won.
In the Original Series, Tigerclaw had a fairly simple plan. He would kill ThunderClan's deputy Redtail, counting on his reputation to get him appointed the new deputy. Then he would stage a coup and kill the current leader Bluestar so that he could become the new leader. It seems to be subverted when after he kills Redtail, Bluestar appoints Lionheart as deputy instead, but it's double subverted when Lionheart dies in a battle and then Tigerclaw becomes deputy. And despite hero Fireheart's best efforts, the coup starts anyway, and he only protects Bluestar by fighting against Tigerclaw, who is exiled for his treachery after the battle.
This trope is shown further in the books after Tigerclaw's exile. He manages to accomplish all his goals anyway by becoming Tigerstar, leader of ShadowClan, and kills Bluestar with a pack of dogs. And while Fireheart fights to stop Tigerstar's new plan to unite the Clans under him, ultimately Tigerstar's Evil Plan isn't foiled until near the end of The Darkest Hour when Scourge kills him and becomes the Final Boss.
The Night of Wishes: Knowing Beelzebub and Tyrannia can't make the Notion Potion without their enchanted parchment, Jacob and Maurizio try to destroy it. The parchment is able to defend itself.
Live Action TV
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: In Season Five, one of Glory's minions opened the portal home before Glory was defeated. The same thing happens in most seasons, with some variations.
In Season One, the confrontation itself triggers the final phase, as the Big Bad needs Buffy's blood to give him the strength to set his plan in motion.
In Season Three, by the time they figure out who the real Big Badis, he's completed a ritual that makes him invincible until he's ready to go One-Winged Angel. (In this case, the Scoobies do actually capture an artifact required for the ritual, but, in doing so, Willow was taken hostage by the Big Bad. Wesley argued that they should accept Willow as lost and destroy the artifact there and then, but in the end, the Scoobies traded it for their friend.)
Season Four is a subversion of this trope. Adam was potentially the most dangerous foe that Buffy ever faced, but they managed to kill him before he secured a powerbase. If he had succeeded and gained the resources of The Initiative, then they would've really been in trouble!
Season Six: Short answer: Yes. Dark Willow is seconds away from destroying the world. Long Answer: No. The trio of nerds were the main villains for most of Season 6, only a handful of their plans even got past stage 1, and none of them really went the way they anticipated (leading up to a frustrated Warren just going to buy a freaking gun...).
Season Seven: Short answer: again, yes, most of the major events of season seven go the way they do in order to have the climatic battle at the end. (And the span of human history leading up to it, according to the First Evil.) Longer answer: the season went mostly according to the Big Bad's plans, but Buffy took it off the rails before the invasion was scheduled to begin. It all still came down to an all-or-nothing final battle with everything on the line, but it was done on the Slayers' timeline before the Big Bad could open the Hellmouth and have the army of super-vampires start pouring out. The word "plan" is used loosely, as it seems to consist of little more than "screw with Buffy's head". Probably a result of the writers designing an omniscient, omnipresent villain with "unlimited resources" and still trying to make the show dramatic. By the final episode, even the writers had to lampshade how useless the First Evil was for all of their supposed power.
Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue — the Rangers fight the demons for an entire series, but can't defeat Bansheera until after she succeeds in bringing her evil fortress to Earth.
First Wave: Was a short-lived, low budget series about trying to do exactly this, the title being about the first phase of the aliens' three-step plan.
Each season of 24 has the villains' plans succeed to some extent:
In the first season, the plan to kill Teri Bauer succeeds while the Palmer assassination fails.
Season 2 has the bomb go off, even though only Mason is killed. This is significant because Palmer is forced to follow through on his threat that if the bomb goes off on U.S. soil, he will wage war against the people responsible.
In season 3, hundreds of people are infected with the virus, although a city nation-wide epidemic is averted.
In season 4, one nuclear meltdown succeeds, and Keeler is incapacitated and possibly killed after Air Force One is shot down.
In season 5, the gas attack on the shopping mall partly succeeds, as does the attack on CTU headquarters.
In season 6, 12,000 people are killed by a suitcase nuke in Valencia, California.
The 3rd season of Star Trek: Enterprise is the epitome of this trope. Over the course of an entire season, the Enterprise doggedly and valiantly track the Xindi effort to build and launch their Sealed Death Star in a Can. However, no matter what they do, they cannot stop the Xindi from launching the device. For bonus points, the Xindi open one of their spatial rifts which enable them to cross the distance from their part of space to Earth in something like 4 hours. Note, it took the Warp-5 Enterprise months to reach the area.
Every move the crew of the Enterprise makes to stop the Borg fails until the Borg arrive within spitting distance of Earth.
Samurai Sentai Shinkenger has Sujigarano Akumaro planning to open up the barrier between the world of the living and Hell by creating six wedges out of human suffering. He succeeds in creating the wedges, but underestimates the true nature of the Blood Knight he manipulated into helping him with the final stage of his plan.
Choujuu Sentai Liveman takes this Up to Eleven. Bias suceeds in getting the twelth brain, brainwashing the world, and becoming immortal. In other words, he succeeded. And he would have won if Yuusuke hadn't made it to the Brain Base or if Kemp didn't become a Deus Ex Machina.
In Kamen Rider Fourze, a Zodiarts has yet to be stopped before entering its Last One phase.
The first 5 season finales of Supernatural are made of this.
In Season 1, the Winchesters corner Azazel but fail to kill him, allowing him to continue his plan for Sam.
In Season 2, they are seconds too late to stop the Hell gate opening, and while they close it, over 200 demons still escape from Hell.
In Season 3, Lilith succeeds in dragging Dean to Hell, which opens the first seal to start the Apocalypse.
In Season 4, the main characters are attempting to prevent various seals from being broken and thus preventing the end times. It didn't go well. Sam is tricked into killing Lilith by Ruby, unwittingly breaking Lucifer's seal and releasing him onto Earth.
In Season 5, Lucifer succeeds in hijacking Sam's body, but in a subversion of this trope, Dean manages to snap him out of it long enough for Sam to throw himself and Lucifer into Hell.
Featured heavily in Person of Interest against Decima Technologies. In season 2, they manage to put a virus inside The Machine, though Finch had planned on this all along as a means of freeing it from its original limitations. In season 3, they manage to create a second machine and make it operational.
In the 2004 saga, Makuta manages to put Metru Nui's entire population into coma, along with MataNui himself, and gets back his full power, but his plan is foiled at the end by the heroes. This all happened because the heroes were genuinely late — they didn't even need to fight the dragons, because Makuta absorbed them to gain power.
At the end of 2008, he finally manages to fulfill his plan and become the ruler of the universenote (although the heroes had no way of stopping him due to his acting in complete secrecy, another set of good guys did try to find him in a side story, so this counts as an actual example. However, due to the toy-line getting put on a hiatus before the originally planned story could be told, he is defeated in the following saga.
Mutants & Masterminds. The mechanics of actually help set up this structure. You have a few encounters with the villains, during which they set up their plans and, thanks to GM fiat, escape or muck up the heroes' plans. However, these complications allow the heroes to gain "Hero Points", which they can use to shift the odds in their favor or gain temporary bonuses, so when the final fight rolls around, everyone's at their best. On the other hand, there is a power under Luck Control that allows the PCs to cancel Villain Points, effectively telling the GM, "No, you do not get to escape this one!"
Interestingly, the inverse system used by Deadlands leads to the same metagame: players start each gaming session with poker chips, and can earn some more in a variety of ways. These chips can be used at any time to get bonuses on rolls, or reroll failed actions, or negate injuries etc... However, whenever a player uses a chip, the GM gets one, to be used on NPC actions. So, while using chips early in the story to stop Mooks or avoid an injury might seem like a good idea at the time, it WILL come back to bite the PCs in the ass. Trust me, pilgrim: let the outlaws rob the bank. Take the sucking chest wound. Use 'em chips when you know who the real Big Bad is, and are drawing a bead on his noggin'. No sooner.
7th Sea has Drama Dice, which work roughly the same. But of course, the entire point is heroism and general Large Ham behavior, so you really ought to hold out for the supervillain.
A similar dynamic exists in basically every incarnation of the FATE system. The Dresden Files in particular makes it explicit that powerful characters (including wizards like Harry), on account of having a low refresh and thus starting out with potentially no more than one lonely fate point to their name when a scenario unfolds, basically have to earn more the "hard" way by accepting setbacks and rolling with the punches as best they can in order to eventually have enough to help wrap up the plot.
This can occur in any game system where the PCs gain experience and level, but the villain or villains don't. The first time they meet their enemy, the heroes are outclassed. By the climax, they have gained more skill and gear, and can face their foes on a more even footing. It can be averted if the PCs outmaneuver the GM. Usually causes the session to end early.
It's often said that the easiest way to beat the game is to get the Kokiri Emerald and then stop playing. Now that Ganondorf can't collect the three Spiritual Stones, he'll never enter the Sacred Realm.
While the game otherwise plays it straight, Word of God is that it was actually subverted offscreen. After beating Ganondorf in the Final Battle, Link went back in time and used his knowledge of the future to expose Ganondorf and have him arrested before his plan could really get started. This created two alternate timelines: one where Ganondorf was defeated during the climatic showdown (which led to Wind Waker and itssequels) and one where Ganondorf was defeated early on (which led to Majora's Mask and Twilight Princess). On the other hand, Twilight Princess showed that Ganondorf's attempted execution was a spectacular failure that only served to set up a new crisis, so that zigzags things back to being played straight.
In Majora's Mask, no matter what you do, you can't reach the Skull Kid until 5 minutes before the moon crashes into Clock Town. Despite the "Groundhog Day" Loop giving you effectively infinite chances to try to get on top of the clock tower before that point, you never can. Just like you can never get to Mikau (Zora guitarist you get the Zora's mask from) until he's seconds from death.
Almost a little ridiculous in the Super Mario Bros. games, where Bowser will always succeed in taking over most of the kingdom and Mario won't find out about any of it until he kidnaps Princess Peach. Actually averted in Super Paper Mario, where Mario and Luigi go to rescue Peach from Bowser before Bowser ever did anything, leading to quite a bit of confusion on the part of both parties as to who did it.
In an amusing example, one speedrun of Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars features beating the boss Punchinello on the first turn using Mario's Super Jump attack to cause more damage than the boss has HP. Punchinello normally goes through "stages" where he summons and throws bombs of increasing size; when killed early, he runs through all of his bomb summoning animations sequentially and then goes right into his death animation.
In Super Paper Mario, you can't stop the annihilation of all worlds. In fact, you get caught in the middle of one being annihilated! Everything is remade at the end, however.
Played entirely straight to an almost astonishing degree in Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, where pretty much everything the heroes do up until the Ultibed Quest is a complete failure in terms of stopping Bowser and Antasma. They try and save Peach. They initially fail. Then they save her... but Bowser and Antasma do a Villain Team-Up against the heroes and set off to conquer the real world. They head for the Dream Stone, but Bowser and Antasma manage to steal it before they get there. The duo go to Mount Pajamaja, but the villains use Magic Music to put the island to sleep and charge the McGuffin, eventually having their evil wishes granted. And to top it all of, when they try to hide Peach in Dreamy Driftwood Shore, they find that Peach is actually Kamek in disguise and the real Peach is being held hostile at Neo Bowser Castle. Or in other words... everything until the Ultibed thing is a complete Shaggy Dog Story that Mario and Luigi may as well have not bothered with.
In Baldur's Gate II, no matter what you do, you can't avoid having Irenicus steal your soul and having Bodhi steal Imoen's.
Also, closer to the beginning of the game, there is nothing you can do to prevent Imoen from being taken away to Spellhold. She will always cast that one spell that makes the Cowled Wizards take her away, even if she has no spells left and/or is wearing armor that prevents her from casting magic.
Mass Effect 1: Sovereign manages to dock with the citadel before it is destroyed.
Mass Effect 2: Even if you install all the ship upgrades as soon as possible, you can't use them against the Collector Ship until the Final Battle. Specifically, Shephard can install the highly destructive Thanix Cannon (which one-shots it in the Final Battle) before running into the collectors' ship two more times, without using it. The Normandy was disabled by a virus the second time, but could have easily destroyed it the first time if not for this trope.
In The Arrival you will always be captured when you discover the science team has been indoctrinated by Object Rho. Even if you defeat all the waves, you will be knocked unconscious by the artifact itself.
Subverted in the Star Trek: Generations game: If you can win an extremely difficult (but not hopeless) space battle, you can put an end to the Big Bad's plan and win the game long before the villain's plans come to fruition. Unfortunately, while this rewrites the canonical Bridge Drop, Kirk still stays dead.
In the second game, the Empire finishes its Warship/Dreadnought just before you reach it, necessitating a more involved plan to destroy it.
And of course, you can't stop the Cyclone from destroying most of the cities in the game. Mysidia survives, and Salmando and Bofsk, and you just manage to save Phin; Altea, Paloom, Porft, and Gatea go bye-bye. The Emperor destroys Palamecia castle himself, and Dist and Kashuon are both abandoned and/or in ruins anyway.
In Final Fantasy VII, you can't topple Shinra, stop Sephiroth from acquiring the Black Materia or summoning Meteor, or even stop him from skewering your White Magician Girl in a Plotline Death. You can, however, stop him from achieving Ultimate Power and kill him before he gets it rather than after, which is actually rather unique as Final Fantasy goes.
In Final Fantasy IX, Zidane always arrives just after the villain has finished destroying the town. If he's lucky, he arrives a few minutes beforehand, and then the town is destroyed.
Final Fantasy XII avoids this by removing every "easy" way for the heroes to succeed early. If they had killed Vayne early on, then Archadia would have come down hard on Dalmasca, the war between the two Empires (with Dalmasca right in the middle) would never have been averted, and the Occuria would have retained their grip on the world. The entire plot is a gradual movement of all the pieces in play until the heroes can strike a decisive victory.
However, it's played utterly straight regarding the Nethicite. You can't stop the Dusk Shard falling into the hands of the empire. You can't work out how to use the Dawn Shard, and you utterly fail at destroying the nethicite in the Empire's possession. In fact, the entire plot is an exercise in futility — every time you walk halfway across the map to get some plot-important artifact, you arrive back home only to find that Vayne has done something to make your efforts entirely useless. Sure, killing Vayne may not have saved Dalmasca, but so much aggravation would have been avoided if you'd just sliced the sneaky bastard's head off at stage one.
In Final Fantasy Tactics, you can't save Alma from capture; you have to leave her under the "protection" of the monastery while you go off and do hero stuff. And that's just scratching the surface: earlier, you can't save Teta, then you can't stop Ophelia from siding with Volmarv, you can't convince Zalbag to avert the resulting Lion War, you can't stop Delita's machinations. An Unwitting Pawn is you, Ramza. So unwitting, in fact, that he can't even stop the Church from branding him a heretic.
Somewhat averted in the first Time Crisis game, where the villainous mastermind Sherudo gets killed halfway through the game, though the rest of it is spent chasing The Dragon, Wild Dog, through the fortress.
Arguably, it's played straight in another sense, as you get a chance to save the girl at the end of the first and second levels, but the boss arrives and prevents you from doing so.
In Time Crisis II, Keith and Robert fail to stop the military satellite from being transported via train, and can only stop it when it's about to be launched.
Suikoden does this quite a lot, though it's especially obvious in V. While there may be battles and encounters with major enemies early in the plot, any attempt to stop them before you recruit The Strategist is doomed to failure (although you will be forced to try anyway).
Once you get The Strategist, on the other hand, it's more a matter of the enemy being unable to thwart your stage one. At that point, most army battles become very difficult to lose.
Again in Suikoden V, you cannot prevent Lord Godwin from taking over the castle with Nether Gate, the King and Queen being assassinated, or Lymsleia being kidnapped and eventually forced into puppet-queendom, no matter what you do.
Listing all the times this happens in Skies of Arcadia would likely require a trope page all of its own.
The all-encompassing one, of course, is that our heroes spend the whole game collecting five of the six Moon Crystals and keeping them out of enemy hands — and then have no choice but to let the villain take all six, prompting a final battle.
At the start of Super Metroid, you encounter Ridley making off with the Metroid hatchling. Nothing you can do can stop him. If he beats you, he'll escape to Zebes with the larva. If you beat him, he'll drop the larva, then pick it up again and escape to Zebes anyway.
Ace Combat can be pretty bad about this. Let's just take one game: Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War. The big final scheme involves the use of a very large rocket with a nuclear payload. You fight your way through a tough squadron of ace pilots, then through a twisting canyon with ridiculous SAM coverage overhead, and then fly into Avalon Dam to destroy the launch controls. Even then, the missile is still launched and you have to take out your former wingman Pixy, who turns out to be controlling the launch from his supertech-loaded plane; the final fight becomes a race against the clock to destroy the plane and thus the control before the missile can make reentry.
At least it makes sense based on two things: #1, all other Allied Forces were essentially sacrificed to ensure your successful attack run on the Avalon Dam (whether intentional or not on the enemy's part, it left you all alone) and #2, you're the freaking Demon Lord of the Round Table, who liberated your country's capital, "pulled Tauberg's sword from the stone" (destroying the beam superweapon Excalibur), and defeated multiple Belkan ace squadrons along the way. None of them had a backup...
Ace Combat 5 is almost exactly the same: Fight through defenses, destroy launch controls, fight ridiculous air battle anyway. Against a Kill Sat.
This example is arguably justified, as the Kill Sat in question was specifically designed to fall on the supposed enemy capital in the event of uplink loss to the ground control station. It's just that no one knew about it until after the ground control station was destroyed.
One more example in Ace Combat 6 is that the opening mission of the game is the defense of your country's capital city. Despite the player possibly being able to destroy every enemy aircraft there is (not counting the respawning ones) plus drive off the enemy aces, you're ordered to retreat anyways. Only to have to fight through everything again to reclaim the capital. Not to mention the end-all doomsday weapon mission afterwards.
Shattered Skies had Megalith still go operational even after ISAF desperately battled through Erusea's forces in an attempt to end the war before it could be used.
Notably averted where the final boss is introduced relatively early and can theoretically be beaten less than halfway into the game. You can beat him within the first 20 minutes, which incidentally makes for an amusing conversation given that the fight has canned dialogue, so people who have no idea who or what the boss is are saying things along the lines of "So that was his plan all along!"
Played straight when attempts to prevent Magus from summoning Lavos or the Mammon Machine from awakening him fail, and you ultimately have to defeat Lavos yourself.
In the first Mega Man X game, when you get to Sigma's Fortress, Vile will be waiting for you. Zero intervenes and gets his ass handed to him. At this point, it is possible to have already acquired the Secret One-Hit KO Hadoken. However, Vile's Ride-Armor is resistant to it, and will proceed to throttle you, as there are no walls to hang onto.
In Mega Man X2, a robot boss called Morph Moth goes through two distinct fighting phases, changing between them when its health is less than halved. Just before you fight him again in the fortress, you can gain a skill that kills any boss in one hit. Against Morph Moth, however, you have to do it twice - once to beat his first phase (2/3 health), and again to beat his second phase.
In Mega Man X5, your initial defeat of Sigma is part of his plan, setting in motion a Colony Drop. You then spend most of the game building machines to prevent the crash — but no matter how good your luck is, you can't stop it completely. What's more, the second thing you try may turn Zero evil, and this was also part of Sigma's plan. (Even if Zero's okay, he and X will end up fighting, leaving just one hero to stop Sigma.)
The missions you undertake in the Mega Man Zero games fail a lot. For instance, in Zero 2, you'll just about catch up with Elpizo several times before getting a chance to actually stop him.
Mega Man Battle Network lives and breathes this trope. In all six games, Lan and Mega Man defeat lots of bosses but never stop them from getting what they're after, be it TetraCodes or Alpha or whatever. Only by beating the final boss can they score a decisive win.
Every robot created before X and Zero is Three-Laws Compliant. In other words, Mega Man can only hope to lock up Dr. Wily for a few months at best. The one time he actually did try to kill Wily (7) ends with Mega Man's A.I. going into a Three Laws loop, which allows Wily to escape. Years down the road, Wily finishes his greatest creation: Zero. When Zero is released in 21XX, he goes on a rampage. Sigma manages to put him down, but has his data compromised by the Zero Virus, slowly driving him mad until he finally snaps and declares war on humanity, manipulating various parties in the process, spreading the Sigma Virus over Earth, and (worst of all) dropping the Eurasia onto the planet, turning it into a hellhole. Sometime after Sigma finally goes down circa X8, Zero's anti-viral programming is examined, producing the Mother Elf as a way to eradicate the lingering effects of the Sigma Virus. Then Weil enters the picture. For no reasons other than his belief that humans are superior to Reploids, he steals Zero's mindless body (reprogramming this blank slate into a psychopathic killing machine known as Omega) and corrupts the Mother Elf (turning her into the Dark Elf), starting the Elf Wars. Final count? 60% of all humans and 90% of all Reploids have been wiped out.In order to seal away the Dark Elf, X gives up his body, forcing the creation of an unstable Knight Templar copycat of himself to rule Neo Arcadia in X's place. This... doesn't bode well. By the end of Zero 4, Weil has been defeated and the world is saved, but at the cost of Zero's life. In the following centuries, humans augment their bodies with cybernetics and Reploids are given lifespans akin to humans, merging into a single race (Humanoids). Then Model W (heavily implied to be Weil's soul merged with fragments of Ragnarok from the finale of Zero 4) rears its ugly head in ZX. This threat is presumably dealt with, but the world somehow is sacked by a great flood and humans all but disappear and are replaced by a race of Artificial Humans known as Carbons in the next 4400 or so years (the time of Mega Man Legends). And there are still problems in the world. And all of this can be indirectly traced back to one heroic robot being unable to kill one Mad Scientist. It is a vicious domino effect like no other.
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne is practically the poster-child for the trope. The initialBig Bad succeeds in destroying the world within the first few minutes of gameplay, and, due to the structure of the plot, it only gets worse from there. You can't stop your friends from turning into half-human monsters, heaven forbid talk them out of their Face Heel Turns, you can't stop Hijiri going insane, you can't stop Isamu sacrifing him, you can't stop Chiaki from slaughtering the Mannikins, you can't stop Hikawa from opening the Ark of the Covenant, you can't stop anyone from gathering enough Magatsuhi to summon their "God", and it's only at The Very Definitely Final Dungeon where you're able to defeat anyone. If you go for the True Demon ending, Metatron can't stop you, plot-wise, from teaming up with Lucifer to destroy all worlds and Rage Against the Heavens. That said, this is averted when Hijiri announces he'll form his own Reason, then is promptly kidnapped and killed by Isamu, and if you decide not to pursue the True Demon path, preventing Lucifer's plan from even really starting. It's also subverted if you go for one of the Reason endings, since there you might not want to thwart stage one.
Subverted in Metal Gear Solid; turns out Snake could've stopped stage one easily if he died. Ocelot accidentally killed one of the Hostages with the PAL codes (it's revealed later he had his reasons), so they couldn't launch Rex's nuke. Except that Armstech had created a special card key which would deactivate the nuke (if it was activated) or activate the nuke (if it was deactivated). All they had to do was convince Snake that they had the codes, and Snake went along and completed stage one for the terrorists ("You found the key and even activated the warhead for us").
Metal Gear Solid 4, Act 3: Ocelot wins. He captured Big Boss's body while you were distracted by a decoy. He has enough control over the SOP system to completely shut down the world's armed forces. All that's left is to ensure that he cannot launch nuclear strikes as well.
The Metal Gear series provides one of the most excessive examples of this in all of gaming: the first five games are all stopping terrorists, who are eventually revealed to have been rebelling against the very dangerous conspiracy which is only thwarted in the final act of the last game. Arguably, the world would have been much better off if Solidus, Liquid, or Big Boss had killed Solid long ago.
Solid Snake arguably did more good than harm. A better example is if Ocelot, Liquid, Zero, or Big Boss had been killed off early, the dangerous conspiracies would never have even taken place at all.
The HD Collection lampshades this with the Trophy/Achievement "Problem Solved, Series Over", which you get for killing Ocelot in MGS 3.
Played straight in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance: All seems well when the President's trip to Pakistan is cancelled and Air Force One turns back, but Senator Armstrong's plan wasn't foiled: the fact that American soldiers died on the Pakistani base was more than enough to kick up support for a war that would see Armstrong elected and his vision for a Social Darwinist America realized.
In Xenogears, the Big BadDeus is resurrected and nearly at full power. Because of what it has to do to resurrect itself (transforming the bodies of humans and fusing with them), almost all of humanity is wiped out. The hero, of course, slays Deus, though not before this all happens.
True Crime: Streets of LA had a branching storyline, so it was entirely possible to completely screw up the bad guys' plans and get them all killed before the plot could come to fruition. However, this gets you a bad ending, since the plot never had a chance to get underway and as a result you never were able to piece together exactly what the hell was going on in the first place.
More importantly, in the Bad ending, Nick Kang loses his job for accidentally killing the Big Bad (or letting him die) and remains bitter for not finding closure. In the REAALLY Bad ending, Nick's brother is murdered, prompting him to go full-onvigilante, the Big Bad escapes, and The Dragon teases Nick about knowing about what happened to Nick's father just seconds before dying himself.
Played really straight in the GameCubeResident Evil remake. When playing as Chris, you come across Wesker fighting Lisa Trevor. He'll say "Chris! Take a piece of the action!" when he sees you, and you fight her off together. However, Wesker can get knocked into the abyss by Lisa's attacks. If he does so, he'll still appear unscathed during the final battle, with no explanation.
This started as a subversion, though. Originally, this actually would have killed Wesker, and you'd have gotten an entirely different ending. For whatever reason, the developers decided against it, and forgot to remove the line of code that allowed Wesker to be knocked off the edge.
Blizzard seems to enjoy this trope as a means for making proper drama.
In StarCraft, the chronological order of the campaign is Terran -> Zerg -> Protoss, with the Terrans introducing most of the cast and the threat of the Zerg, the Zerg campaign having them run rampant over most of the galaxy, and the Protoss managing to barely pull off a last second victory despite a fully manifested Overmind on the surface of Aiur.
Subverted in the Brood War expansion, as the order is changed to Protoss -> Terran -> Zerg, with the Protoss simply doing their best to survive in their campaign, the Terrans introducing the new UED antagonists and succeeding much like the Zerg before them... and then Kerrigan betrays everyone and the Zerg finish the game as the pre-eminent power in the Sector, with only Kerrigan's mercy holding them from overrunning her former allies she used to bring down the UED.
In Warcraft, the first two games were a continuity snarl as the Alliance and Orc sides had different, mutually exclusive endings if you played through them. Reign of Chaos, however introduced a similar progression to StarCraft, with the Alliance campaign ending on Arthas' corruption into a Death Knight, the Scourge campaign rolling up most of Lordaeron, before the Horde and Night Elf campaigns manage to beat back the Scourge's Burning Legion backers in an exciting climax.
And much like StarCraft before it, Frozen Throne starts with the Night Elves dealing with the aftermath of the first game, moves on to the Alliance campaign setting up Illidan's powerbase, and then ends with Arthas beating all comers around the titular Frozen Throne before putting on Ner'Zul's armor and becoming the Lich King, with the unlimited power the position entails no longer kept in check by the Throne's prison.
In short, you can't stop Stage One because, at any point where stopping the bad guys early is a real possibility, you're playing as them.
In Diablo III, you cannot stop Diablo from being resurrected as the Prime Evil at the cost of poor Leah's life and running roughshod all over the High Heavens, but you can stop him from completely extinguishing the Crystal Arch and casting both the Heavens and Sanctuary into darkness forever.
The Matrix: Path Of Neo actually averts this trope. The first stage has Neo try to escape the Agents trying to arrest him at his office. Unlike the movie, however, Neo can climb the scaffolding and make it to the roof, meeting up with Trinity, and leaving the office undetected. All this does is unlock Hard Mode, though.
The game's Big Bad, Shepherd, can be found as an NPC on the first level. Shooting him results in a friendly fire game over. The concept does make for a rather amusing video, though.
The Big BadShepherd also helps Private Allen up at the start of the second level before walking away — if you shoot at him, however, gunfire will not hit him.
In Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire, no matter what you do, the Dragon of Doom will rise and need to be defeated at the end of the game. Never mind that you and everyone else that matters in the Kingdom know which exact artefacts need to be protected in order to prevent that occurrence, and where these are; they get destroyed anyway. Also, the mysterious assassin makes a few appearances during the game; of course, you stand there like an idiot and can't deal with him until the plot says you can.
In the previous game Quest for Glory IV, the Big Bad lures the player into a trap before siccing a horde of mooks on him. If you are quick enough and clever enough, it's actually possible to escape this ambush and make it back to a friendly town, where you're safe. But the plot requires you to be captured, and the Big Bad will just keep trying every night until he succeeds.
Averted in the Extra endings of Shadow Of Destiny, where you gain the ability to foil the entire game in the prologue. Especially notable in that, depending on how you interpret the game, this is the final canon ending. If you take the time to consider how a lot of the plot plays out, ANY of the endings could be stage one.
Taken to its logical extreme in the first Wonderland Adventures game: the thwarts succeed. The plan worked. The Void WILL engulf Wonderland no matter what you do. However, you get the chance to, essentially, repair the world. Tell me that isn't awesome.
You do thwart stage one in Red/Blue/Yellow: Whatever Giovanni had planned for Silph Co, you beat him down before he can get it, earning yourself a nice shiny Too Awesome to Use Master Ball for your efforts.
Justified in Gold/Silver/Crystal by the fact that the guard won't let you higher up the Radio Tower, and, even if he isn't in on the whole thing, there's no way he would buy the excuse, "The director was kidnapped and Team Rocket has a fake up there!".
Nicely handled in Platinum with Cyrus trying to attack you about 5/8ths in, letting you beat him down. He still escapes, though, and you aren't able to access the Galactic Hideout early, even if you grind to level 100. That receptionist must have balls to still not let you go past at that point.
Happens again in Black and White, where you will never be able to stop N from defeating the Elite Four and Champion, no matter how fast you get to the Pokemon League. Alder states that he is going to give N the best thrashing he can, and while he fails, he insists you hold on to whatever stone your game provides in case things don't go as he expects (and, as stated above, they do go awry).
Averted in Time Hollow, when after finishing the game normally and starting a new game, Ethan can foil the antagonist's plot by jumping straight to the solution. Considering the premise of the game, this makes perfect sense.
In Cave Story, the Doctor succeeds in kidnapping the Mimigas, acquiring the demon flowers, and even creating a concentrated form of the flowers' active ingredient. You can't stop him until he's on the verge of turning the Mimigas into his personal army of monsters.
Destroying the core was probably stage two of the Doctor's plan, but it probably still counts, as you can't thwart that, either.
Happens quite commonly in Project Sylpheed, thanks to the New Game+ feature. The first time you, the player, take on an enemy cruiser, it's quite the accomplishment, being very, very difficult even on the easiest difficulty settings. Your commander even admits that he's impressed, but he doesn't want to see you try anything that stupid again. Of course, over the span of the game, your space fighter gets weapons upgrades that are Game Breaker-level improvements... Which in no way affect the game's storyline or allow you to rescue or otherwise impact the story in any meaningful way. Even when you're regularly wiping out entire enemy fleets, your own fleet will still be desperately on the run.
This is played straight for most Fire Emblem games, though, as Stage 1 usually involves the successful invasion of another country, an opening used in pretty much every game in the series, usually to the success of the bad guys. A more direct example would also be in Seisen no Keifu, where the villains successfully manage to kill all the heroes except one, including the protagonist. They then complete their later steps with no opposition, including taking over the world and resurrecting their evil god. In fact, the only thing the hero actually prevents in the end is a lengthy rule of evil.
Command & Conquer 4 is pretty extreme about this if you compare the two choices: you either work against Kane or with him. In both cases, he wins. Although it's debatable if his ultimate plan is evil or not, his means certainly are.
Disgaea 2 has the protagonist try to summon the final boss at the very start of the game. It doesn't work, but he does try.
Actually averted, sort of, as he does summon exactly what he was trying to summon. He just didn't know the final boss was a fake Zenon and that the real Zenon has reincarnated as the bratty girl who called herself Overlord Zenon's daughter.
Singularityis a deconstruction of this trope. Near the start of the game, your character, Renko, is thrown 50 years into the past — going from a destroyed building to a building on fire. Coming across someone trapped in the fire, Renko saves him, then jumps back into the present — where he (Dr. Demichev) has taken control of the world. Unfortunately, if you try to kill Demichev or leave him to die, the game will end.
This is explained by the endgame. After fighting through Demichev's troops, Renko manages to create a bomb powerful enough to destroy the island's reactor — he detonates it in the past. When he comes back to the present, Demichev is waiting for him in front of an operational reactor. He says that it was pointless to destroy the reactor — he just rebuilt it. Dr. Raikov, a supporter of yours, then says that the problem with the time loop wasn't the reactor, but Demichev — since you rescued him from the fire. Demichev then says that you've already tried killing him in the past, and it changed nothing - as evidenced by notes scrawled on the wall by someone who turns out to be Renko. Raikov then realizes that the only way to stop the loop is to destroy the one thing not present in the original timestream — Renko.
Touched on in one of the opening levels of Max Payne 2, which sends you to investigate a warehouse where gunfire was recently heard. One of the corrupt commercial cleaners at the place lets you in and shows you around the place, eventually leading you into an ambush. Killing him beforehand averts nothing, but instead causes the protagonist to make an off comment in his rampant monologuing about how obvious a brawl he was walking into.
Max: The perp's disguise didn't fool me. He was leading me into a trap.
Averted and played straight in City of Heroes. Straight examples: when playing through story missions, it always seems to come back to a climactic battle between you and the villain of the arc, even if you've successfully completed all the missions beforehand (and should have already thwarted his plans). However, you can also do one-off missions such as "Prevent the Xs from obtaining the Oxygen Destroyer!" Once you complete the mission, you never hear about it again; it is never explained just what would happen if the Oxygen Destroyer was obtained, but fortunately you thwarted stage one!
In Mafia II, there are several scenes where your target is visible running away from you, with the intention that you'd be too busy dealing with the next group of mooks to shoot him then. But if you DO take some well-aimed shots, he's seen taking the hits and completely ignoring them, even headshots. Killing some targets earlier may have spared you having to drive Henry to El Greco or saved Marty's life.
Averted with the mission where you have to warn Leo that Henry's been sent to kill him. It's difficult, but it is possible to simply avoid him and escape with Leo. If you get caught, Henry strikes a deal and allows Leo to leave town, letting him get payment for the job and keeping your old friend alive.
In AdventureQuest Worlds, every major Chaos Lord so far has succeeded in awakening a Chaos Beast and breaking one of Drakath's seals before being defeated by the hero. The one time the hero does actually prevent a Chaos Lord from summoning a Chaos Beast during the Mythsong saga, it turns out that he's not the real Chaos Lord, and that the real Chaos Lord, Kimberly of One Eyed Doll, was controlling him. And she has a Chaos Beast all ready for the hero to fight.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Cutscene Incompetence stops you saving the Emperor from assassins at the start of the game. You arrive at Kvatch the day after The Daedra burn it to the ground, though thankfully Martin, the man you were sent to rescue, survived by hiding in a chapel with the people he helped to rescue. You take him back to the Weynon Priory just as the Mythic Dawn have finished ransacking the place, killed the head priest and taken the Amulet of Kings. You can't stop Mankar Cameron fleeing to paradise with the amulet, you need to adventure the length and breadth of Cyrodiil looking for components to build a portal so you can follow him. And even when you finally get the amulet, Mehrunes Dagon still achieves his goal of being summoned to Tamriel.
If you join the Dark Brotherhood, Lucien Lachance can't stop you from murdering half of the Brotherhood, all the way up to The Listener. You can't save him when the surviving members of the Brotherhood execute him for treachery, and the only way you can expose the real traitor, Bellamont, is when he tries to kill the Night Mother, by which time only you and one other Brotherhood leader, Arquen, remain. (Justified, the Night Mother is fully aware of Bellamont's treason, but reasons that if the rest of the the Brotherhood can't find him, they deserve death for their incompetence.)
And you can only delay Sheogorath's transformation into Jyggalag and the triggering of the Greymarch, not stop it completely.
However, knowing this, Sheogorath subverts this by making YOU the next Sheogorath, thus there will still be a Sheogorath when Jyggalag appears.
In Kingdom Hearts, Sora spends so much time trying to lock every keyhole that he doesn't even find out the Princesses of Heart are being kidnapped until he finds them in the final level, where they're being used for Stage One of "Ansem's" takeover. THEN Sora carves out his own SOUL and completes Stage One for the guy. Is this kid just genre blind or what?!
Then, in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, you fail to get through Castle Oblivion before all of Sora's memories are rearranged so that Namine replaces Kairi in Sora's mind. Thankfully, this isn't permanent.
In the Infocom text adventure murder-mystery, Witness, the murder itself doesn't actually happen until a few minutes into the game. It's entirely possible to prevent the murder and completely derail the plot by doing something utterly insane (i.e. shooting the killer, or even murdering the victim yourself). However, any such act would end the game immediately with your character being sent to jail.
In specific missions, the Grand Theft Auto games sometimes do allow you to thwart a stage — avoiding a car chase by planting a car bomb beforehand, sniping a villain who's fleeing to a speedboat, etc. The grand plot, however, is pretty strict — sometimes you'll even have a required Escort Mission for a character you'll have to kill in a later mission.
Touhou 11: Subterranean Animism: you can't stop Utsuho from growing in both power and madness. CAUTION!
Touhou 12: Undefined Fantastic Object: you can't stop Toramaru and co from unsealing Byakuren. Subverted, they aren't villains by any means.
Touhou 13: Ten Desires: you can't stop Miko's rite of resurrection.
The Sonic series thrives on this. In many games, Sonic tries to stop some evil from being released or brought to full power (or in one case, the Chaos Emeralds from being collected, which unbeknownst to him and Eggman, releases an evil anyway). Said plot goes underway anyway despite his best efforts, and the final boss is him going Super Sonic to face the unleashed evil and bring peace to the world again.
In Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Knuckles is being manipulated by Eggman into thinking that Sonic is coming to steal the Master Emerald. Sonic can't tell Knuckles that this isn't the case (be it his Heroic Mime status or because Knuckles never sticks around long enough to listen), and no matter what, Sonic can never make it to the Hidden Palace in time to protect the Master Emerald before Eggman's ready to betray Knuckles. Doubly subverted, though, in regards to Eggman's plans to rebuild the Death Egg. Sonic's victory at the Launch Base causes the Death Egg to crash down to Angel Island in destruction before it can be launched into orbit (...somehow), but Eggman still succeeds at rebuilding it AGAIN and successfully launching it and stowing the Master Emerald inside.
It's most egregious in Sonic Adventure, as you spend large amounts of the game searching for Chaos Emeralds at a snail's pace, and Eggman (or rather, Chaos) succeeds at getting every single one. The last Chaos Emerald, hidden in Tails' Tornado and being used as a power source, lands in the Hidden Ruins at the end of the game. There is no way to take the Emerald out of the plane and by the time Sonic finally gets to it... Chaos has already found it and stolen it.
In Sonic Colors, by the time Sonic and Tails even reach Tropical Resort, Eggman's already stolen a solar system's worth of planets, built a gigantic Space Elevator, chained all the planets to it, imprisoned hordes of the Wisp species AND has successfully turned them (or at least a good chunk of them) into the horrible Nega Wisps. In fact, Eggman succeeds at every step of the way. If it weren't for a Chekhov's Gun moment destroying the Tropical Resort that Eggman had tied his whole operation to, he would've won.
The Time Eater's gotten pretty much everything down by the time Sonic Generations even starts. Multiple areas in time and space have already been broken, Sonic's friends are Taken for Granite, and the Chaos Emeralds have been scattered (as usual, of course). YMMV, of course, but it's much more of an Excuse Plot this time around than it is in any of the other games.
Inverted in EarthBound. Everything that Giygas does to prevent the prophecy about the Chosen Four from becoming true, from having Pokey steal a helicopter to prevent them from reaching Summers or Scaraba, to launching an attack on Onett when the kids need to obtain a piece of the meteorite, fails miserably, and in one case, even backfires. (If you need clarification on that, Apple Kid, Dr. Andonuts, and a Mr. Saturn were kidnapped into the Stonehenge base. This leads to them regrouping at Saturn Valley after Ness saves them, and brainstorming how they can help Ness and co bring Giygas down once and for all.)
In the very first chapter of the original Neverwinter Nights game, it's not hard to figure out that Desther is up to something fishy; even if you haven't played to the point where he finally openly sabotages the attempt to find a cure for the Wailing Death yet, a number of clues pop up before then. Yet you can't actually do anything with them before it's time for the scripted final battle; he can't be fought until then, and any accusations that the dialogue system even allows will simply be met with disbelief from the NPCs.
Averted in The Last Story. Smug Snake bad guy has a plan to unleash a horde of monsters on the town, and steal in the chaos...you thwart it before he can release the monsters.
Inverted in Dawn of War: Winter Assault. In the final Guard mission, the Mighty Glacier Necrons only attack once you've built a Generator to power up the Titan. This gives you plenty of time to increase your forces, defending against a few ork and Chaos attacks (and when the Necrons appear, they do so inside the ork and Chaos bases, taking them out for you).
Inverted so hard it isn't funny in The Wizard of Oz text-based game for PC. At any time in the game, even as your very first action in Oz, you can enter the command "Click Heels". Dorothy will do it, return home, and you're treated to an alternate ending where Dorothy wonders what kinds of adventures she missed out on.
Averted in Sleeping Dogs. The Villain's plans are, in fact, thwarted at something close to Stage One. Stage one is 'Blow up a major landmark'...and it fails.
Out of all the tropes it plays straight, inverts, subverts, averts, and generally makes its bitch, BlazBlue actually justifies this one. The world is caught in a century-long time loop that starts with the Black Beast emerging in Japan in 2100, and ends with Ragna and Nu falling into the cauldron at Kagutsuchi, only for the loop to repeat from square one. This is because Takamagahara, a triple-minded supercomputer that observes the flow of time, decides to stop observing a given timeline after Ragna and Nu fall in, wherein they become the aforementioned Black Beast. With the ability to stop observing a timeline and start anew at a backup point, Takamagahara can carry out their plan to induce absolute order on the timestream without anyone being able to interfere. The reason they do so is because they wish to destroy the Master Unit, Amaterasu, but due to the fact that it buried itself in the depths of the Boundary, they cannot find it unless its Eye becomes manifest, and keep cycling until it does... in the form of Noel Vermillion. Their two observers - Rachel Alucard and Yuuki Terumi - engage in their own cosmic chess game to try to shape the fate of the world, but Terumi has been liberal with the leeway he has to pervert events to his own ends, and shaped the events that would lead Noel towards the cauldron in Kagutsuchi so the timeloop would break, all of which curry to his favor. As a result, the events of Calamity Trigger play out to Terumi's advantage without exception.
Continuum Shift, however, is quite a bit more complicated. Takamagahara set a new backup point after the time loop broke to more directly control affairs and carry out its plans, and alienated Rachel Alucard in the process due to her actions in preventing Kagutsuchi's destruction after Noel saved Ragna the Bloodedge from his fate. Its new plan involved using Terumi to smelt Noel into her original identity (Mu-12), use her to track down Amaterasu, and destroy it. While this plan goes off without a hitch, they were ready to reset should Ragna kill Mu... only he chose to restore her as Noel instead. Terumi planned for this, however, using Phantom's magic to peruse every possibility of the continuum shift, and had Relius kill him before Ragna and Mu's fateful battle so he can infiltrate Takamagahara during this brief period and use a virus program to lobotomize them (for what it's worth, Ragna was supposed to kill Terumi, but the lifelink Terumi established with Mu would complicate affairs for him, and he left the bastard to bleed instead - that's where Relius came in). So as much as the protagonists' brain trust of Rachel, Jubei and Kokonoe wanted to break the plan whenever possible, Terumi got what he wanted in the end. However, he had to pay a price of his own this time - Ragna had to be issued Lambda's Idea Engine, which locks out Terumi's direct control over the Azure Grimoire Ragna wields, Noel survived and is now fully aware that Terumi was playing her (and as much as Terumi acts like he doesn't need her anymore, he really does, and plans on manipulating her in the future), and Jin Kisaragi awakened to the power of order that Terumi fears so much due to the combined efforts of Makoto, Jubei, Rachel, Hakumen and Ragna, and defected from Terumi's control as well. While Terumi got a new figurehead hero in Tsubaki Yayoi, that same power of order could sever the brainwashing that compels her to serve the now-corrupt Librarium. On top of that, the aforementioned Makoto possesses knowledge that would cement Tsubaki's correction in alignment towards good once said brainwashing elapses, and has sight of other plot threads vital to Terumi's post-Kagutsuchi operations, as well as one tied to her wrist that is linked to Relius' own designs. And that's not the entire bill. Suffice it to say, without a script to work off of, Terumi's going to have his hands full dealing with so many rogue elements at once. Depending on how well the protagonists cohere in Ikaruga, Terumi's plans stand on a razor's edge, with one unplanned rogue element too many away from tipping towards failure - and this time, the damage won't be so small...
Played straight in each of the original Guild Wars campaigns.
Prophecies: The Undead Lich acquires the Staff of Orr and unleashes the Titans, despite the efforts of the heroes and the Mursaat to prevent this. You must then slay the Lich and seal the Titans away.
Factions: Shiro is resurrected using the blood of the Imperial line. You must kill him again in a final confrontation so he can be properly imprisoned.
Nightfall: Varesh succeeds in her rituals to bring about Nightfall and opens a vortex into the Realm of Torment. You must enter the Realm of Torment and defeat Abaddon before he can break free.
Eye of the North: In a meta example relating to the sequel, you cannot stop the awakening of Primordus the Elder Dragon. All you do is delay it, allowing a new story to develop centuries later.
Guild Wars 2 also has this at the conclusion of Scarlet Briar's Living World storyline. You manage to drive her army out of Lion's Arch and kill Scarlet, but not before she wakens the sixth Elder Dragon.
Magellan: Miasma and DragonKlaw manage to open the Equis portal before they are defeated.
Big Bad Xykon, being Genre Savvy, suggests to Roy that they follow this trope and declare the battle for one of three remaining gates that Xykon needs to examine a Mulligan: Instead, Roy can build up levels and they can have a final tussle all good and proper at a more suitably dramatic time. Roy rejects it. Xykon kills him. He gets better. Not long after this, Xykon encounters a defense of the gate so powerful even he can't overcome it. Naturally, Miko shows up to accidentally ruin everything just before Soon Kim can kill Xykon and Redcloak.
Most notably, Darth Vaarsuvius, temporarily powered up decides to go and just teleport into Xykon's palace and assault him directly all alone to end it all at a very anti-climatic moment. Before either party has still seen the last two portals, or managed to control one. Vaarsuvius fails.
Tarquin's Dangerously Genre Savvy motivation for being a villain is this. He knows that eventually some hero will come and topple his empire and kill him...but until then, he's at Stage One and living the high life.
This is arguably the overriding theme of Book 1 of Erfworld, wherein the main character, Parson, had been intending to do this to a group of PCs in a game he was going to run, and is instead pulled into a gaming universe where it continually happens to him. He finally becomes Genre Savvy about it here◊.
Especially if you believe that Stanley's side is The Empire, it's clear who's going to win the Battle for Gobwin Knob, though not how this will happen. If Parson wasn't working for the bad guys in Book One, then he certainly is considering what happens afterward.
Sluggy Freelance: The Sluggy crew try to stop Gwynn from summoning the demon K'Z'K. Doesn't work. They try to trick Bun-Bun into killing Gwynn while she's possessed by K'Z'K. Doesn't work. They try exorcising K'Z'K from Gwynn. It works... but it unleashes K'Z'K in his full power upon the world. They try freezing K'Z'K in time. He ends up going back in time instead. Only when Torg and Zoe also go to the past, where K'Z'K has amassed an army of demons to conquer the world, do they finally succeed in killing him.
In General Protection Fault, Trudy's plan to split up the cast proceeds smoothly until Nick is in the Statue of Liberty, unwittingly using his Velociraptor device to power the Kill Sat that she is using to hold the United Nations hostage in her bid to take over the world, leading to a final desperate attempt to stop her. Then again, it took until the previous chapter for the heroes to even realize there was a plan.
Homestuck: A version of this occurs by necessity in all games of Sburb. In every session, someone must defeat the White King (good guy) and begin the Reckoning, a 24 hour period during which meteors from the Veil (asteroid belt) bombard Skaia (sparkly planet-thing in the Medium vital to winning the game). The catch is that Skaia has defence portals which can send the meteors to the host planet (i.e. Earth in the comic), and these portals can send things to the past. It just so happens that the players of Sburb invariably create themselves, and the baby versions of themselves get sent back through these portals to become themselves. So if the Reckoning did not happen, the players of the game would not exist! So if Stage One were thwarted, that would cause a time paradox. Which doesn't happen in this universe (usually).
Cuco in Cucumber Quest would very much like to avert this trope by preventing the Nightmare Knight's summoning, but the enemy — and even some of his allies — are determined to have it played straight.
Invoked in the Final Fantasy Trilogy. Shadow sells out the group to Kefka to prevent them from killing him before the "Trinity Hour", so that they can kill him once the "El Taco" takes over him, and thus take both down at once.
Machinima: Yogscast Minecraft Series; the Tekkit Rebirth. Think Zoey and Rythedin are going to disarm that nuke under blackrock? ...Nope, it explodes, taking Zoey with it at the end in a massive Tear Jerker moment. This is particularly bad due to the fact that via the game mechanics, there where a ton of ways they could have stopped it; Rythedin even suggests some of these multiple times. Ideas included building a reinforced wall around it — instant problem solver, which is shut down by Zoey saying it's just hiding the problem, not removing it. Using a jammer looks hopeful but fails when it ends up electrocuting everyone, and changing the frequency with a remote was not actually brought up but would have been an instant problem solver.
Common and constant in Jackie Chan Adventures. Every season involves the heroes rushing around the world to find objects of power before the forces of evil can collect them all and become all powerful. Nearly every season ends with said forces of evil collecting everything anyway and having to be defeated at their most powerful. This was only averted twice: the first time, Jackie and co. did manage to stop Shendu from freeing all of his demon brethren, but then Shendu manages to find an easier way to do it and it happens anyway. The second time is to stop Daolon Wong from collecting Shendu's scattered powers (echoing the plot of the first season) — in an amusing twist, the season ends with Daolon having only some of them, trying to make a deal with Shendu to get it all, and then Shendu tricking him and getting all the power himself. Again.
Avatar: The Last Airbender: The gang originally had the sensible idea of waiting until after Sozin's +300 Comet of Firebending was gone before deciding to take on the Fire Lord. Then they find out at the last minute that, in a shocking plot twist, the villains do not plan to spend their period of temporary nigh-omnipotence sitting in their respective throne rooms eating take-out. Slightly more surprising, they don't intend to use the power to merely overpower the remaining resistance forces in the Earth Kingdom; instead they plan to incinerate the entire continent. So the heroes no longer have the luxury of waiting. Then various operational delays keep them from being able to attack the Fire Lord in the 48 hours available before the arrival of the comet. Nope, the final battle just has to be on comet day, and no other day.
Also, the fall of Ba Sing Se and the failure of the invasion on the Day of Black Sun are both instances of this trope in action. Had the heroes been successful in either, the epic battle of the season finale wouldn't have been quite as epic (if it had even happened), as the Fire Nation's resources would have been depleted.
What's even worse is that they absolutely could have prevented Azula's takeover of Ba Sing Se; in fact, it looked like they were just about to do it... Until Zuko put Honor Before Reason, betrayed them to his family, and shook up the battle enough for the Dai Li to show up, and for Azula to back-shoot Aang with lightning in the middle of his transformation into the Avatar State. And in turn, a victory by the Gaang in Ba Sing Se would've allowed the Day of Black Sun invasion to have been carried out with the entire army of the Earth Kingdom instead of just a few dozen people. Or heck, even the smaller invasion would have caught the Fire Nation by surprise if only the Earth King hadn't blurted out the invasion plan to Team Azula, disguised as Kyoshi Warriors.
In Barbie & The Diamond Castle, despite the attempts of the heroines to keep Melody out of Lydia's clutches, the evil muse gets her hands on the girl-in-the-mirror and nearly gets her to give up the location of the Diamond Castle before Liana and Alexis arrive to save the day.
Lampshaded in Spaceballs The Animated Series. In one episode, Dark Helmet tells Skroob that it's time to move to Phase 2 of their plan. Skroob suggests staying at Phase 1, because things always go so well during Phase 1, and Lone Starr never shows up to ruin things until they move to Phase 2.
Also played with in So the Drama; Kim foils Drakken's attempt to kidnap Mr. Nakasumi, preventing his capture and theoretically stopping or at least disrupting Drakken's plan long enough to foil it another way, but instead Drakken gets what he wants; from Nakasumi's suit, which was all Shego could recover from the mess. This eventually gives Drakken what he needs to launch the scheme, thus using the trope somewhat straight despite being foiled.
The first three episodes of the second season of Gargoyles were unqualified successes for Xanatos: He got Fox an early parole in "Leader of the Pack" (which he outright stated was all he wanted to do); he turned Elisa's brother against the Manhattan Clan in "Metamorphosis"; and he acquired the code for the deadliest computer virus in the world in "Legion."
Twilight Sparkle is unable to prevent the release of Nightmare Moon and she causes The Night That Never Ends. Fortunately, she discovers of the Elements of Harmony and realized her plus five other ponies that she made friends with are able to utilize said elements, and thus use them to defeat Nightmare Moon. This may or may not be a Batman Gambit by Celestia.
Discord succeeds in breaking the six, turning their elements around and turning them into jerks and Twilight into a friendless sack of depression. Fortunately, Spike had been receiving the letters that Twilight Sparkle sent to Celestia concerning the studies of friendship, and reading them helped cause her to realize the importance of friendship and sets off to help her friends remember as well, thus allowing them to use the Elements to defeat Discord. This is more likely a Batman Gambit by Celestia, however.
Canterlot has been completely taken over and not only did Celestia get beaten by Queen Chrysalis, but the Mane Six also got beaten up by her mooks. Fortunately, Third Act Stupidity sets in for Chrysalis and leaves the six unguarded. This causes Twilight to free her brother and her sister-in-law-to-be and allow them to create a powerful shield to knock the Queen and her mooks out of Canterlot. No really smart gambits here. Heck, if Chrysalis wasn't holding the Villain Ball, she would have won.
King Sombra manages to make it through Cadance's shield and is dead set on reclaiming his throne, with Twilight being unable to bring the Crystal Heart to the others in time. Fortunately, her assistant Spike takes the heart for her and brings it over to Cadence, who with the help of the Crystal Ponies, manage to kill Sombra with a powerful concentrated blast. It's a good thing Spike was there.
Interestingly, this gets inverted in Equestria Girls: Twilight Sparkle manages to at least severely hinder Sunset Shimmer's plan to steal the Element of Magic crown, and she manages to foil Shimmer's plan to gain that crown by becoming Princess of the school ball. However, she eventually fails to prevent Sunset Shimmer from just taking the crown from her through brute force.
Wunschpunsch: In some episodes, Jacob and Maurizio try to prevent the villains from casting the Spell of the Week. Their only measure of success was changing a spell so it'd make Bubonic and Tyrannia good people and they needed to break that spell because it turned them in Heroes With an F in Good.
Occasionally averted on Pinky and the Brain; at least two of the Brain's plans to Take Over the World have required him to raise a large sum of money, only to have him fail to do that (one was to be a contestant on a parody of Jeopardy!, and the other was to enter the Kentucky Derby as a jockey). Amusingly, failing stage one drove him to scrap the entire plan rather than come up with another way to raise the money, even though he eventually did.
A famous Gandhi quote: "When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been murderers and tyrants, and for a time they can seem invincible. But in the end they always fall. Think of it, always."
One of the ringleaders of the July 20 Plot panicked when somebody almost walked in on him while he was assembling the bomb, and thus he ended up using only half as many explosives as planned, not having time to put a detonator in the second set of explosives. MythBusters confirmed that if he'd put the second explosive charge in the bag, even without a detonator, it would've been impossible for anybody in the room to survive (the blast of the first charge would've set off the second). That's not even getting into the possibility of him going back to the room after the blast to make sure it worked, which would've allowed Colonel von Stauffenberg to simply pull out his pistol and shoot the dazed Fuhrer.
Vastly altered history, yes, but not necessarily for the better. During the 2nd World War Hitler's interference almost certainly weakened the German military. Had he been killed someone more competent might have replaced him, and then the assassin would have made a real-life example of Nice Job Breaking It, Hero.
This occassionally happens in military wargames, sometimes more justified than others. In Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, he writes about the true story of retired General Paul Van Riper, asked to play the part of the commander of the opposing force (or Red Team) in the Pentagon's Millennium Challenge wargame simulating an American invasion of the Middle East. Using creative tactics, such as couriers and coded messages inside prayers instead of easily tapped radios and antiship missiles fired from fishing vessels, he was extremely successful at preventing the Blue Team from even landing at all. After his initial success it was redone with Blue Team being extremely successful, now having prepared missile defense systems. Ultimately he was told to move his forces back and turn off his radar so that Blue Team could then win a now heavily scripted battle. He resigned after this element and criticized the scripted exercises in the media. There was some contention in military circles as to whether or not what he did was more exploiting loopholes than realistic tactics as his communications were still assumed to be instantaneous and his fishing vessels would never been able to fire the missiles due to their size, but the idea is that the first stage(the most vulnerable point) of the attacks were allowed to happen anyway.
Another factor in wargames is that what they are doing is in some ways equivalent to Save Scumming as the idea is to test new tactics, not simulate a realistic war in which everyone stays dead. Explained by one of the other generals involved: "You kill me in the first day and I sit there for the next 13 days doing nothing, or you put me back to life and you get 13 more days' worth of experiment out of me. Which is a better way to do it?" However the question of whether some of the lessons were really learned makes that idea less reasonable.
It should also be noted that while this is often shown as being related to the US problems in Iraq, this conflict simulated a conventional war, the same one won by the US in three weeks. However, a variation of Riper's strategy was an extreme concern for the US in Operation Desert Shield/Storm(1990-91 Iraq) in that if the Iraqis had went south into Saudi Arabia before US forces had arrived in sufficient numbers it would have been almost impossible to stop them before they owned a large percentage of the world's oil reserves. Imagine if the Kuwati oil fires also applied to Saudi Arabia.