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Sorting Algorithm of Evil

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Villains will appear in strictly ascending order by menace.

This trope has ancient roots. Possibly the earliest example, at least in the English language, is the Older Than Print epic Beowulf. It just makes good sense that as our heroes fight the forces of evil, they should get better at fighting the forces of evil. So as the story progresses, the fights should get easier and easier. Of course, having an overly easy fight is just bad drama, so you have to consistently increase the threat the heroes face. This results in the Sorting Algorithm of Evil. The first villain you meet is the weakest, and the last is the strongest. As the heroes get strong enough to defeat their current enemy, a new enemy will emerge that forces them to reach another skill level. It would be an Anti-Climax if the hero defeated the Baddest Ass and spent the remaining time contending with not-quite-as-Bad Asses.


There are several ways to justify this; due to Monster Threat Expiration, the current villain usually Forgot To Level Grind while the heroes are out collecting 20 Bear Asses and are Gonna Fly Now thereby outclassing him. This at least provides an in-story explanation for the Lamarckian evolution of evil from one bad guy to the next. In some cases the Big Bad the heroes defeated last time was actually a mere member of a powerful organization. The others can show up to avenge their fallen comrade, so now we have the previous big bad times two or more. One of the more realistic possibilities, albeit one that's hard to justify in many stories, is a tournament structure, where the opponents become more formidable the closer the heroes get to the championship. In a series centering around military technology this can be explained by technological progress. The heroes will get new weapons, strategies, and better technology, but so will the enemy. This can apply not just to technology, but also knowledge: if a hero has a rogue's gallery of foes they fight constantly, and a surprise new Outside-Context Problem enters the mix later in the series, they'll be more difficult to handle due to unfamiliarity with how they work. In some cases, particularly the Shōnen genre, it could be that an earlier Big Bad who presented a powerful threat is now dead and can no longer grow anymore in power and by the time the heroes face the latest Big Bad, the new villain (and subsequently the heroes themselves) will have had that much more time to become stronger that the previous villain. Another example would be that the Big Bad has been defeated but lesser villains are forced to fill the power vacuum by becoming even more evil.


Occasionally, a particularly strong villain will ignore this trope and arrive early to beat the hell out of the heroes, only to leave them alive because they're Not Worth Killing.

A problem comes up if a long-running show goes past its first Grand Finale. We may believe that the ultimate Evil Overlord is enough of a tactical dunce to think that sending his henchmen out in ascending order was a valid strategy. But why should the new, unrelated, Big Bad happen to be even stronger? Sometimes the Big Bads might form a string of Men Behind The Men, making this structure more sensible. Although this leads to new Fridge Logic issues: why doesn't the Man Most Behind use the unimaginable power of his position to just wipe all the heroes out instead of just sitting there? If the first Big Bad is only a local terror, bigger bads may not have even been aware of the heroes. The increasing threats they face are a reflection of the threat they pose to the ultimate boss. And then there's the Fridge Logic that can rise when one wonders why later, more powerful villains would tolerate the earlier, weaker ones hatching plots of their own. If the villain of Season Three wants to destroy the world, and the villain of Season Four wants to conquer it, why would the Season Four villain tolerate his predecessor's attempts to destroy it? One way to address these issues is to make the later villain a Sealed Evil in a Can who only gets released after the earlier villain is defeated.


Another downside of this trope is viewers who get into a show later may find early villains lame by comparison when they go back to catch up — "pshaw — we're supposed to be worried about this guy? He can't even blow up a galaxy!"

This trope is particularly common in Roleplay Games and Video Games: the more and stronger enemies you fight, the more experience and power you get. You also get the magical weapons and armors they drop. You have no chance against mid-game monsters with a starting character, but by the time you get to them, you are ready. That makes this the perfect trope for a Small Steps Hero, since they can clean up the world one bad guy at a time.

Related to Convenient Questing where ascending menace is laid out geographically, and the player must proceed through these regions in strictly ascending order by menace. (Mount Doom? It's right over there, but you have to go through the Hills of Moderate Evil, which are themselves on the far side of the Forest of Inconvenience, reachable via the Ghibli Hills.)

When this happens involving entire breeds/species of villains, it's changing the Villain Pedigree. If it's because various villains were sealed away it's Sealed Cast in a Multipack. If a particularly powerful villain remains on screen for too long and can't keep up, compare Monster Threat Expiration. If one of the weak, foolish villains encountered early turns out to have been faking it, they might be a Not-So-Harmless Villain using Obfuscating Stupidity to camouflage their true sorting order.

See also Sliding Scale of Villain Threat, which breaks down the scales of villainy. Contrast Evil Evolves. Compare Always a Bigger Fish, Lensman Arms Race, So Last Season, Sequel Escalation, Rule of Escalating Threat.

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    Comic Books 
  • The Authority: Warren Ellis' run consists of three four-issue storylines. In the first, the Authority fight a supervillain. In the second, they fight an alternative Earth. In the third, they fight what could be described as God. When Mark Millar took over the writing, he went back to various kinds of supervillains again.
  • The Avengers: During his tenure as the writer, Jim Shooter pitted the team against a series of progressively more powerful and more dangerous opponents, all of whom had powers that bordered on invincibility. They faced the genetically enhanced Atlantean Tyrak (who had superhuman strength), the robot Ultron (who was equipped with an "encephalo-ray" which could place his enemies in a death-like state and possessed an indestructible adamantium body), the mad scientist Graviton (who had the ability to control one of the fundamental forces of the universe), Count Nefaria (a Flying Brick), and eventually Korvac (a would-be warlord from the 31st century who had obtained godlike powers by absorbing part of the Power Cosmic from Galactus's abandoned starship). The first four typically took down Thor and Wonder Man (the strongest members of the team) with a single attack, while Korvac actually managed to kill the entire team in battle before being driven to despair by the apparent betrayal of his similarly cosmically-empowered wife and restoring the team to life with his final breath.
  • Batman: Year One reintroduces The Detective as being principally concerned with cleaning up Gotham City's mobster problem; its nominal sequels such as The Man Who Laughs, The Long Halloween and Dark Victory concern the gradual emergence and rise of the supervillain threat, and by the end of Halloween and Victory nearly all the principal mobsters are either incarcerated or dead, and the supervillains have taken over. Afterwards, though, this trope is zig-zagged and subverted since, while Batman does deal with global, even genocidal villains as his career moves on, and as part of the Justice League takes on intergalactic menaces and otherworldly threats, those same supervillains still pose as much or even more trouble for him as they ever have, though under Grant Morrison there was / is a tendency to make the city-based threats part of larger international conspiracies, to the point where prior to the lastest Cosmic Retcon Batman had decided to start his own multinational crimefighting franchise to tackle crime everywhere.
  • The Reverse-Flashes from The Flash follow this in terms of power:
    • Edward Clariss/The Rival was an enemy of Jay Garrick who despite his best efforts, could not match the latter's speed.
    • Eobard Thawne/Professor Zoom was not only just as fast as Barry Allen, but he learned how to gain Time Travel and Me's a Crowd abilities from his speed.
    • Rather than being a traditional speedster, Hunter Zolomon/Zoom had the power to slow down time. Even Wally Wast, the fastest of the Flashes, had a hard time stopping him.
    • Thaddeus Thawne is not only a powerful speedster, but he stole Zoom's powers for himself and he has complete control over the individual timelines of other people.
  • Justified in Lilith: for every time travel the protagonist does she comes closer to the source of the Triacanto, so the Thistles defending the original carriers of the various infection strains are closer to their source (no matter the place in the timeline), going from a few guys unable to properly manifest during the siege of Wilusa to the small army of Elite Mooks defending Emin Pasha.
    • Subverted in issue 9, where the Thistles are much stronger than ever before or after until the Grand Finale, and in issue 11, where the Thistles are at their weakest. Both exceptions have good reasons: in issue 11 the carrier was dying of bubonic plague and that interfered with the Thistles' ability to manifest, while in issue 9 Lilith, looking for the infection strain of that era, had come very close to the still immature source of the Triacanto, and the Thistles there were at their strongest and the same ones that would be fought in the final battle.
  • In Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers (Boom! Studios) issue 45, the Omega Rangers launch an assault on the moon palace that ends with Lord Zedd's minions on the run and Zedd himself imprisoned. Zordon, however, is far from happy, pointing out to the Red Omega Ranger that something is going to replace Zedd and the Omegas won't be around next time.
  • Subverted in Scott Pilgrim: Matthew Patel, the first member of the League of Evil Exes to appear, is the most pathetic, and the second one, Lucas Lee, gives Scott a hard time... Then the third, Todd Ingram, is by far the most powerful (enough to punch a hole in the Moon-twice), and is only defeated due what Scott himself calls "some kind of last minute, poorly set-up Deus ex Machina" taking away his psychic powers. After that, Roxy Richter is stronger than Lucas Lee, the Katayanagi Twins are individually weaker than Lee but fight together and prove at least as formidable as Roxy, and Gideon is second only to Todd in terms of power.
  • Spider-Girl: A subtle example occurs with the villains Earthshaker, Mr. Abnormal, and Killerwatt. All three of them were defeated by Spider-Girl early in the first series, and don't reappear for several years real-time. When they finally reappear, they've been drafted to serve in a government super-team, but do a pretty poor job of it. While they were credible threats to Spider-Girl early in her career, their ineffectiveness is now lampshaded by everyone from Carnage to Agent Maria Hill of S.H.I.E.L.D. to Spider-Girl herself.
  • Subverted in W.I.T.C.H., with the power of the enemies spiking up and down all the time: the first Big Bad, Phobos, is not a threat as Nerissa from the second arc but is the Greater-Scope Villain, with the various competing villains of the third arc competing for the spot as the weakest (and indeed would have been easily wiped out had the Guardians not had reasons to not go the direct route). The fourth story arc has a more dangerous villain than ever but he's not a physical threat as Nerissa, who would be topped only by Dark Mother in the New Power arc (the seventh), with the villains of the following arc being again lesser threats than Nerissa (the one possible exception being the Runic Wizards, but their storyline was dropped).
    • Interestingly, Phobos is faced at his normal state only in the very end: in the first arc he's powered up by the magic he stole from the planet Metamoor, he's in a stolen body for most of the fourth arc, and in the final confrontation he's using a spell to immobilize the Guardians and circumstances to make himself invulnerable. When his safeties fail in the middle of the final fight he has barely enough time to realize he's doomed before Will disintegrates his soul.

    Fan Works 

    Films — Animated 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Subverted in 300. After his first wave of Mooks fails, God-King Xerxes sends his best troops, the Immortals, to kill the Spartans. While the Immortals make quite a few casualties among the Spartans, it ultimately fails because, as the narrator claims, the Spartans were not yet weakened by fatigue.
  • In the first Alien film, just one alien manages to kill off all but one crew member of the Nostromo, Ripley. In Aliens, she has to face a colony of them, including their Queen. Then averted in Alien³, which like the first in the series has only a single alien menacing our protagonists, in addition to a Queen embryo maturing in Ripley's thorax. And finally played half-straight in Alien: Resurrection when a colony of them is being faced again, but this one consists of no more than 12 individuals in addition to their Queen, as well as some sort of alien-human hybrid in the end.
  • The Dark Knight Trilogy makes use of this trope, with each main villain becoming more competent. Alluded to in The Dark Knight where the first time we see Batman he handily arrests Scarecrow. In addition, the first two movies have Gotham City at risk of losing hope or sanity. The third movie has the city at risk of every person in it dying.
    • Batman Begins has Batman first fight the mob, then Scarecrow and his fear toxin and finally Batman must defeat Ra's al Ghul who nearly drives all of Gotham insane with fear toxin, before Batman defeats his army and leaves Ra's to die. Scarecrow appears briefly in the sequels having gone through Villain Decay, making him the weakest of any leading villain.
    • Then in The Dark Knight, The Joker manages to put all of Gotham into panic without the vast resources and army that Ra's al Ghul had in Batman Begins and creates another villain, Two-Face, by causing Harvey Dent to become a Fallen Hero. The Joker also nearly succeeds in making Gotham lose all hope.
    • In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane at first seems to be just a robber who attacks the stock market. Very quickly, Bane is shown to be a huge threat, especially when he defeats Batman and traps him in a prison halfway around the world. After that, Bane forcibly takes over Gotham for months, and is secretly working with Talia al Ghul. Both want revenge for Ra's death, and want it by nuking Gotham.
  • From Dusk Till Dawn has an unusual inverted example. When the vampires reveal their true nature, the named ones with actual character and personality are all killed before the climax, including Santanico Pandemonium, who was seemingly being set up as the leader of the vampires and the Big Bad. The climax ends up involving several waves of no-name Mook vampires, alongside three converted allies.
  • Bruce Lee's last film Game of Death is practically the Trope Codifier as it had him climbing a pagoda where each level had a progressively harder fighter.
  • Used briefly in the first Gamera series. In Gamera vs. Gyaos, Gamera takes the entire film to kill Gyaos. Then, for Gamera vs. Guiron, Guiron is introduced as he's effortlessly killing a Space Gyaos. This wasn't entirely intentional on the filmmaker's part, as they'd originally intended for Space Gyaos' role to be filled by a completely different, new kaiju—they only reused the Gyaos costume because they couldn't make the new monster in time.
  • James Bond movies, however, frequently have the main villain's henchman reappear after the main villain has died and his plot has been foiled. Bond will then dispatch them, often by forcing a backfire of their trademark gimmick.
  • The Karate Kid series has a pattern in which he must use a new technique that the previous final boss proves immune to, thus suggesting that each opponent is tougher than the previous.
  • Kung Fu Hustle has a rather clearly evident Algorithm, starting with basic Axe Gang members that are countered by the Pig Sty Alley's three martial artists, who are then countered by the Axe Gang's hired Musical Assassins, who are then countered by the Landlord and Landlady, who are in turn countered by the Made of Iron and superhumanly-fast Beast, who is in turn countered by the Heel–Face Turn-ed Unsympathetic Comedy Villain Protagonist. In a slightly jarring subversion, the Beast attempted to use a pile of basic Axe Gang members to soften up the hero before properly fighting him.
  • The opposition in Legion gets increasingly stronger: Old lady > an ice cream man (bummer) > about 100 angels > another 500 angels > an uber angel.
  • The Lord of the Rings breaks from the trope, with the power level of the foes waxing and waning, depending on on the part of the war and the extent of the power that the Dark Lord decided to display. For example, the first few villains they face are his most terrifying servants the supernatural Nazgul, then they encounter a colony of weak but numerous goblins and a hulking cave troll, and split just before dealing with Saruman's super-orc Uruk-Hai. In the second film they face mostly rank-and-file orcs. In the third, however, the Nazgûl come back with tougher mounts, the colossal mumakills appear, the king of the Nazgûl shows up, and Aragorn ends up dueling an armored troll.
  • MonsterVerse: Not in release order, but if the franchise's film installments are put in chronological order, this trope is in full effect until Godzilla vs. Kong. In Kong: Skull Island, the Skullcrawlers are relatively small by Kaiju standards, and Kong who isn't even fully mature yet can beat back hordes of them. In Godzilla (2014), the MUTOs are nearly the size of Godzilla, they create an EMP around themselves which does a lot to cripple the entire U.S. Navy's efforts to track and stop them, and the pair make Godzilla work quite a bit to kill them both and it looks like they nearly win the fight against him. In Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), Ghidorah is roughly twice the size of Godzilla, he's powerful enough that Godzilla is considered the only force on Earth that can truly rival him (and even then, in a fair fight without Mothra's assistance or watery terrain, Godzilla despite himself does seem to be the underdog), Ghidorah generates an intensifying electricity-filled hurricane around himself merely by being active, and he gains command of all the other Kaiju on the planet except Mothra when Godzilla is briefly incapacitated. Overall Zig-Zagged in Godzilla vs. Kong, where the Big Bad Mechagodzilla is essentially Ghidorah's reincarnation, but is implicitly not quite as powerful as Ghidorah was: lacking Ghidorah's Healing Factor, Energy Absorption and apocalyptic Weather Manipulation, with Word of God and the novelization suggesting the Mecha only succeeded in curb-stomping Godzilla because the latter was already heavily weakened before their fight, and with the heroes successfully killing Mechagodzilla before it can take control of any other Titans.
  • Justified in Pacific Rim. The first Kaiju to arrive on Earth are scouts sent to cause as much mayhem as possible. Once humanity began to show resistance, the Precursors responded by sending more advanced and larger Kaiju to deal with the Jaegers. And once the plan of wiping out all Jaegers succeeded, an extermination wave of deadly Kaiju would come to destroy humanity once and for all.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean began with the enemies being a crew of cursed undead pirates. The second movie had them facing against primarily the mythological Davy Jones. The third was a battle royal against Davy Jones and the entire East India Company navy, with the God of the Ocean thrown in for good measure. Good thing Elizabeth Took a Level in Badass.
  • Subtly toyed with in Point Blank — the hero keeps killing his way up the chain of command without truly getting anywhere.
  • In Spider-Man, Flash Thompson is designed as the primary antagonistic character during the beginning of the film, which quickly graduates to Uncle Ben's killer for a short period and then, at long last, the Green Goblin.
    • The Amazing Spiderman does more-or-less the same thing, though it replaces the Green Goblin with The Lizard.
  • Star Wars: Stormtroopers board the Tantive IV in the beginning of A New Hope and several of them promptly get gunned down. Then, Darth Vader enters and lets everyone know who is in charge. It's not until the sequel that we are introduced to Emperor Palpatine, leader of the Galactic Empire.
  • Each of the Terminator sequels introduced a more advanced Terminator model as the antagonist. There are plot reasons for this, since Skynet is sending Terminators back into the past from increasingly later points in the future, thus the models are stronger than the previous ones.
    • The T-800 Terminator in The Terminator is a Super Tough hulking Implacable Man Immune to Bullets, pitted against human fighters.
    • The T-1000 model in Terminator 2: Judgment Day looks less physically imposing than the previous one, but it's an illusion. This foe possesses Voluntary Shapeshifting, allowing it to create melee weapons from its own body, impersonate anyone, and will recover from anything to the point of being Nigh-Invulnerable. Not to worry, the humans now have a reprogrammed T-800 on their side.
    • The T-X in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines combines the best traits of both previous models, being a Super Tough solid Terminator skeleton with a liquid metal shapeshifter skin. It also has an in-built plasma cannon in one of its arms, and can hack into most mechanical systems and operate them remotely. The odds are tipped even more in the machines' favor, since the friendly T-850 fully admits that it's a depleted model compared to the T-X.
    • Terminator Salvation, as it's set during the future Robot War, showcases Skynet's entire army, with numerous models of different designs, including gigantic Harvester mechs, regular warriors, and infiltrator prototypes. The movie does play it both ways however, since while the Terminator threat is larger than ever, the Terminators themselves actually seem less efficient than in previous movies because they uncharacteristically hold back during fights due to the protagonists' Plot Armor.
    • Terminator Genisys introduces two new Terminator models, the T-3000 and the T-5000. The T-3000 is even more difficult to destroy than the T-1000 since it's actually a colony of nanomachines taking on a human shape that can shrug off just about anything. It's even more dangerous because it's a roboticized John Connor and thus knows how its targets think. The heroes are at a disadvantage since the Terminator on their side, the Guardian aka "Pops", has suffered wear and tear due to age. The T-5000 is the most advanced Terminator seen so far, being an avatar of Skynet itself. In its brief screen-time it effortlessly kills John Connor by transforming him into a T-3000 and wipes out an entire roomful of Resistance soldiers.

  • Oddly subverted in the Lone Wolf gamebooks, then played straight. Lone Wolf actually manages to kill two of the Darklords in the first five books; each was the leader of the Darklords at the time of their deaths. Later, Lone Wolf goes on to fight more powerful opponents. Book 12 justifies the subversion by stating that the Darklords are severely weakened by clean air; they could only fight at full strength in utterly corrupted environments. After the Darklords are defeated, the trope is played straight, as Lone Wolf's victory managed to piss off Naar, the god that created the Darklords in the first place.

  • Ciaphas Cain doesn't have the usual progression from one installment to another — they aren't even in chronological order anyway — but instead has a variant where nearly every individual novel starts with facing the threat of one enemy faction, only for it to turn out that an even more dangerous enemy is coming from behind the scenes. This allows ranking them all in an order based on who's the more dangerous enemy (in this series) that can be the hidden threat behind someone else: Tau/Orks < Tyranids < Chaos < Necrons.
  • The Camp Half-Blood Series: The Lightning Thief (the first book of Percy Jackson and the Olympians) sets up Ares to be the main bad guy, but this is a ruse, because the titan Kronos was behind it all along! The rest of Percy Jackson and the Olympians is spent trying to stop the ancient titan from coming back and taking over the world, and they end up doing that. In the Sequel Series The Heroes of Olympus, the heroes face off against the primordial Gaia and try to stop her from waking up and wiping out mankind, which they succeed in. In the other Sequel Series The Trials of Apollo, the heroes fight a Corporate Conspiracy of immortal Roman emperors called Triumverate Holdings, who turned out to be the financial backers of Kronos and Gaia.
  • In the Codex Alera also by Jim Butcher, the Vord have this as a superpower, which when coupled with the raw intellect of their Queens is just as scary as it sounds. Even though the Vord are defeated in the early books, this just taught the Queen new tricks to use to modify future generations of her children, so that when they come back they're far more formidable. The only way to stop the Vord for good without this happening seems to be to kill the Queen.
    • Also played generally straight in Alera with the three successive invading forces. The Marat are Proud Warrior Race Guy barbarian elves who are very individually formidable but don't really have the logistics to take and hold much of Alera; it also turns out that it's mostly one particularly bloodthirsty leader who wants them fighting Alera in the first place, and once he's removed other leaders are willing to talk things out. Next, the Canim are highly disciplined, technologically advanced wolfmen who succeed in waging a prolonged war along the Aleran coast- at least until it turns out they're only there to try and escape from the even more formidable enemy that assaulted their homeland, which turns out to be the Vord, mentioned above, who nearly destroy the world.
  • The Dresden Files: Intially played straight, but later averted. After fighting an evil wizard with more ambition and enjoyment for kicking puppies than actual power or brains in the 1st book, Harry Dresden fights werewolves, ghosts, vampires and the faerie queens by the 4th book... and back down to vampires in the 6th. While there's plenty of fighting and Harry and the other protagonists are powerful in their own ways, the drama generally comes from scheming and Harry's personal stake in the matter. The faeries in Proven Guilty would have been no problem for Harry even back in book 1, but the problem was that now he had to handle the person who summoned them as well.
    • Also, the most dangerous antagonists are not always the ones with the greatest raw power. Villains like Nicodemus and Mavra are significant threats not because of their admittedly considerable powers, but because they are cunning, patient, and pragmatic. Tactics and Flaw Exploitation win out over brute force more often than not.
    • Lampshaded when, caught in the middle of a Gambit Pileup between several supernatural heavy hitters, Harry reminisces about Bianca St. Claire, a "mere" high-ranking vampire and powerful sorceress. However much she might have terrified him at the time, she was just peanuts compared to the Physical Gods and Eldritch Abominations he'd tangle with in later books.
  • Harry Potter. Voldemort starts off as a powerless relic of his former glory in the first book and slowly works his way back up to Big Bad over the course of the series. Thus, the threat Harry faces grows without the villain changing. Voldemort also tries to defy this trope at Harry's birth: he set out himself to destroy him.
  • Justified in the Honor Harrington series. The People's Navy starts out the war with Manticore commanded by a bunch of inept bureaucrats and politically-appointed admirals, but the Committee of Public Safety's coup kicks most of the garbage out of the system and allows the best Havenite admirals to rise to the a purge that also happens to remove their most experienced admirals before they ever come into play. They also implement a system that prevents their best admirals from showing any strategic initiative, including commissars with the authority to override admirals and executions for anyone who fails "pour encourager les autres". It isn't until Esther McQueen becomes Secretary of War and reorganizes the system that they manage any significant strategic victories. When Thomas Theisman overthrows Chairman Saint-Just and restores the original Republic, the State Sec apparatus and political commissars are cleared out entirely, and the finest generals Haven has available can use whatever means they have at their disposal to fight the war with everything they learned in the first war. The second war does not start out well for Manticore.
  • The Laundry Files both inverts this and plays it straight, since the villains get progressively less powerful but progressively more dangerous. The villain of the first book was a cosmic-scale Eldritch Abomination that eats universes, but it ended up being defeated without causing any damage to our universe, and without a single casualty. The next villain was an insane millionaire with vast resources trying to reactivate an ancient biological superweapon, both of whom ended up dying before they could do anything beyond killing a few people. Then there was a fairly generic cult of (mostly) ordinary people, who cause the hero far more suffering than any other threat so far, and come within a hairsbreadth of killing him and summoning a demon to destroy the world, necessitating a full-out military operation to defeat, AND they had already horribly murdered countless people. The latest villain was a Sinister Minister and his Corrupt Church, armed only with money, religious fervor, and a few Puppeteer Parasites...who pretty much took over a large chunk of Colorado and tried to summon one of the most powerful and evil forces in the multiverse and (partially) SUCCEEDED. The sixth Laundry Files novel, "The Annihilation Score," uses this trope name as the title for the second section of the book.
  • The Legend of Drizzt: Advertising copy for The Ghost King: "When the Spellplague ravages Faerun, Catti-brie falls into a deathlike trance, taking Regis with her. Drizzt, with the most unlikely ally of all at his side, seeks the help of Cadderly — the hero of the recently reissued series The Cleric Quintet. But even as his beloved's life hangs by a thread, Drizzt finds himself facing his most powerful and elusive foe, the twisted Crenshinibon, the demonic Crystal Shard he believed had been destroyed years ago. And the dragon he thought was destroyed along with it. And the mind flayer. And the seven liches that created the Crystal Shard in the first place. All in one godlike entity that calls itself the Ghost King." To calibrate the algorithm, it is the last book in R.A. Salvatore's eighth Forgotten Realms series. But then, Drizzt is a D&D hero, with complete stats — and quite strong enough to face a squid thingy and a dragon and a group of liches.
  • Lensman works up from interplanetary gangsters to an evil older than the formation of the solar system whose goal was domination of all intelligent life in the universe. These books justified the algorithm by revealing in each book that the Big Bad of this book was The Man Behind the Man of last book's Big Bad. Then again, the nesting that would be present in the beginning is somewhat mind-boggling. note 
  • The New Jedi Order novel Enemy Lines I: Rebel Dream has Wedge Antilles trying to string along a merely average Yuuzhan Vong commander at Borleias in order to buy time for the rest of the fleet to regroup after the fall of Coruscant. But due to a snafu, they accidentally kill him (prompting Tycho Celchu to snark that "Wedge Antilles was so good he couldn't lose when he tried to."), and Warmaster Tsavong Lah responds by sending his own father Czulkang Lah, a far more effective CO, to command the reinforcements.
  • In Septimus Heap, the threats the protagonists are up to against increse with progressing story, from the inefficient DomDaniel of Magyk over Queen Etheldredda to Tertius Fume and the Darke Domaine in Darke.
    • Although, at the same time this is also sort of inverted: DomDaniel was actually the most powerful villain faced in the series, being an ultra-powerful undead sorcerer trying to conquer the world, but due to being mostly killed before the series started, he has little of his old power and has to act through his less-capable apprentices. Etheldredda and Fume were not only ghosts, but were also just ordinary jerks acting on petty grudges who happened to have found great powers. Finally, the true villain of Darke was actually Merrin Meredith, a Butt-Monkey and Joke Character, who had happened to find a source of Darke power, but ultimately was just a childish, nasty loser.
  • The Skulduggery Pleasant series plays this straight for the first three books, and zig-zags it for the rest of the series: Mevolent, the overlord of evil mages who was supposedly the biggest threat the magic world had faced so far, died long before the series began. The villain of the first book, Nefarian Serpine, was just one of his lieutenants, but was also extremely dangerous and managed to get his hands on a source of godlike power. Then came the second of the three lieutenants, Baron Vengeous, who explicitly invokes this trope when Skulduggery claims that if Serpine was a 10/10 on the scale of evil, Vengeous was an 11. The third book Double Subverts this by at first setting up the villain as a trio of Mevolent's minor officers who's leader doesn't even have magic, but then the Faceless Ones, the villains that all the other villains were serving, who are powerful enough to destroy human civilization as easy as stepping on an ant colony, show up. The fourth and fifth books abruptly subvert the Algorithm by putting the heroes up against a gang of minor villains who are out for revenge and a swarm of evil ghosts with Demonic Possession abilities, and then the sixth book plays it straight by including no less than three supervillain Necromancers (The Deathbringer, Lord Vile and Darquesse) with the capacity to destroy the world (although the stronger two, Lord Vile and Darquesse, are not interested in that at this point). The seventh book introduces a new God-like mage, who just wants to make the world a better place by giving everyone magic — even though everyone (including an alternate version of him believes this is a bad idea and the Mortals will use it to kill each other). To make things worse, three mortal teenagers who he gave magic to as an experiment are clear sociopaths, killing people for fun and becoming a serious threat to mages. After they're all defeated, the eighth book introduces a new enemy who has been hinted at since Book 5 — the magical communities in other worlds, who are so fed up with the Mages in Ireland constantly coming close to letting the apocalypse happen that they've decided to take things into their own hands and are trying to take over — in other words, the new enemy is normal mages — hundreds of millions of them. Finally, the ninth book reintroduces Darquesse, who's been occasionally appearing for half the series — but now she's stronger than ever before. So yeah, the series plays with this trope a lot.
  • Generally averted in Tolkien's Legendarium — the supernatural powers of evil tend to get weaker, not stronger, as the timeline advances. The supernatural powers of good also get weaker, however (or at least less accessible) in accord with the general transition of Middle-Earth from a mythological world to a more realistic one. If you start with The Hobbit and then go to The Lord of the Rings, however, it's played straight, going from the Big Bad being a dragon (dangerous on his own to be sure, but lacking minions or the ambition to range far from home without proper incentive) to an Evil Overlord with world-conquering ambition.
    • Although at the very end of The Lord of the Rings, the heroes have to face one last battle: a handful of bandits in the Shire. After the climax and death of Sauron, this seems comparatively petty.
  • Played Straight (and Justified) in The Wheel of Time. The first Forsaken are Aginor and Balthamael, who are taken care off quite easily. Be'lal proves a bit of a harder challenge, managing to control Tear for a while and shortly having a few characters captured. With Asmodean, Rand only barely wins the struggle, but Asmodean causes no other problems, while Moghedien is also defeated (though not for good). In book 5, Lanfear nearly manages to control Rand before she is defeated, and Caemlyn has to be freed from Rhavin, and in the next book Rand is captured for a while before freed, though his capturers are, strictly spoken, not evil. In book 7, Rand has to free Illian from Sammael, who did put up something of a battle before he was defeated (albeit rather disappointingly). In Path of Daggers a few bad guys manage to scare Rand into hidiing for the next book, and in book 11 Semirhage nearly manages to kill Rand. In book 12, she nearly does so again and does manage to make him near-totally insane until his epiphany. In book 13, Mesaana is inches away from either enslaving Egwene or managing to get Egwene killed in her sleep (though, to be fair, the assassins weren't hers). In book 14, Graendal nearly destroys the armies of the Light by corrupting their commanders to make small, but eventually fatal mistakes and the problems are only barely in time discovered, with heavy losses incurred. Then, Demandred is very nearly victorious against the forces of Light in the Last Battle before he is killed, leaving his army without head while The Cavalry joins the fight (which would not have been enough to turn the tide had Demandred still lived) and Cyndane is literally an arm's length away from stopping Rand at the crucial moment, which would have resulted in a win for the Dark One.
    • Also played straight in The Eye Of The World, where the protagonists first have to put up with a hundred Trolloks then a few hundreds plus Mashadar, and then the Blight plus two Forsaken.
  • The Unexplored Summon://Blood-Sign is a deliberate aversion of this. The main villain, the White Queen, is active in the very first volume and in all subsequent ones. She is always the Man Behind the Man to the human villains of each volume, who also don't follow a linear progression of power. The reason why Kyousuke doesn't get immediately curb-stomped, despite this trope being subverted, is because the White Queen is in love with him and deliberately gives him opportunities to win.
  • In Worm, the villains don't strictly follow this, for example the fight with Coil comes well after both Leviathan and the S9, but overall fights get harder, culminating with Golden Morning, the fight with Scion.
  • In Wyrm, the dragon variations that the protagonists have to fight get progressively harder, ending with Wyrm itself — although, since they've found Eltanin by then, Wyrm isn't srictly one of the dragons required by the game.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
    • The show generally had a far more dangerous Big Bad each season than the last. Good thing Adam didn't show up in season 1. By the end Buffy faces the personified root of all evil. The entire series is a coming of age story and the threats get bigger as they increase in metaphoric resonance with being grown-up.
    • Also subverted in Season 6. In contrast to demon-god Glory, The Trio does little to stir the Scooby Gang until the latter half of the season. Still, Warren does succeed in killing Tara, even if by accident, which serves as the catalyst to awaken Dark Willow, who comes dangerously close to destroying the Earth.
      • If you consider the Big Bad of each season as the character that causes the most suffering to the Scoobies, then Willow is the Big Bad for Season 6, hands down, being the primary cause of the majority of the suffering endured by all the Scoobies, including herself.
    • In Season 8 the Big Bad was the universe itself!
  • Arrowverse
    • Arrow: The first four seasons had each Big Bad stronger than the last, and whose goal became increasingly grandiose in design. The Big Bad for the fifth season was actually the weakest thus far in the series, and his goal was positively minuscule in comparison to the previous four.
      • Season One: Malcolm Merlyn, the Dark Archer, who handed Oliver his ass every time they fought during that season. Later seasons revealed he was just an Elite Mook for the League of Assassins. His goal was to destroy the Glades of Star(ling) City in retaliation for his wife's death twenty years prior.
      • Season Two: Slade Wilson, who was as skilled as Malcolm (if not more so) but was also empowered by the Mirakuru, which enhanced his speed and strength on top of driving him insane. Slade wished to destroy Star(ling) city as revenge for Oliver's role in Shado's death.
      • Season Three: Ra's al Ghul, World's Best Warrior and leader of the League of Assassins. Ra's skill and experience alone was enough to match Mirakuru!Slade, if not surpass him. Ra's main objective was to get Oliver to succeed him as the Demon's Head, and part of the initiation ceremony was the destruction of Star(ling) City through use of the Alpha-Omega Virus.
      • Season Four: Damien Darhk, a contemporary and former rival of Ra's, whose skill as a combatant was actually just a bit below his. However, Darhk was more dangerous, as he had magic at his disposal, meaning that unless you were a meta, you were screwed. His goal was the most grandiose of all — nuking the world.
    • The Flash (2014) has used this for the first three seasons.
      • The first Big Bad was Eobard Thawne/Reverse-Flash, who was able to successfully defeat Barry in their first clashes. However, Thawne's speed is fluctuating and requires constant use of tachyonic technology to keep it stable. He also suffers the drawback of being unable to kill Barry at all, since he needs him to become fast enough to create a breach of the space-time continuum that Thawne can get back home through.
      • In Season Two, Zoom is not only faster than Barry, but manages to successfully steal his speed for a time. He has several abilities unavailable to Thawne, including the ability to toss lightning and create clones of himself through time travel. Finally, Zoom has an entire army of metahumans that he can pit against Team Flash as he pleases.
      • Season Three features Savitar, who spends most of his screen time bound to the Speed Force. He is so impossibly fast that only speedsters like the Flash can see the wisps of light he leaves behind. He can use the powers of the Philospher's Stone to invade the minds of others and pit the members of Team Flash against one another. Finally, he is revealed to be a time remnant of Future Barry Allen, giving him an intimate knowledge of Team Flash that no other villain had. No matter what plan Barry comes up with to stop him, Savitar will simply draw on whatever new memories he gains and plan around it. Only the Heroic Sacrifice of H.R. allows the heroes to disrupt Savitar's plan and kill him once and for all.
  • Super Sentai and its adaptation Power Rangers usually uses this, with the villains choosing to create/summon progressively stronger monsters as the season goes on and the Rangers grow stronger. Sometimes, they justify this by having found a new magical or technological breakthrough in their monster creation process.
    • The seasons Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers to Power Rangers in Space are very obvious at this with their Big Bads. Whenever a new Big Bad arrives, they are always said to be a bigger threat compared to the previous one, forcing the Rangers to get new powers and Zords.
    • Bakuryuu Sentai Abaranger has a subversion in that one of the villain's strongest monsters, Dragondoran, was the first one to be send out. However, its scheme was to hide among human society and establish itself as a successful human fortune teller. When the time was right, it would execute its plan to sacrifice its customers to resurrect the Big Bad. This is the reason it only appeared near the finale
    • Mahou Sentai Magiranger has multiple evil commanders succeeding each other, who come with their own category of monsters, with the succeeding group being explicitly stronger than the preceding one. The series starts with General Branken, commanding the mindless Hades Beasts. These are succeeded by Meemy, who commands the sentient Hades Beastmen. Near the end of his run, Meemy summons the insanely strong Hades Beasmen Kings. After Meemy and this group are defeated, they are replaced with the Hades Gods of Infershia. Power Rangers Mystic Force also displays this trope, but not to the explicit extent of Magiranger, making no real distinction in the groups of monsters.
    • Juken Sentai Gekiranger justifies this by having Rio, the first Big Bad being inexperienced in the evil martial art Rinjuken Akugata. To become stronger, he periodically resurrects long dead masters of said art, who come with their own set of stronger monsters. Rio himself becomes a pupil to these masters, becoming stronger over the course of the series.
    • Justified somewhat in Power Rangers Jungle Fury where the Big Bad is a recently released sealed evil who has lost much of his power, and thus grows stronger throughout the season much as the heroes do.
    • Also justified in Power Rangers RPM (which is superb at justifying, or at least lampshading, standard Power Rangers tropes) with the assertion that the evil Venjix computer virus is developing increasingly advanced technology over time. The early monsters relied on their quirks as opposed to raw power and strength. That explains why they were at the front. Not only that, but the entire PR villain formula Venjix had been following was in fact a smokescreen for his real plan of filling Corinth with hybrid sleeper agents.
  • Stargate-verse: At first glance it might even seem like the Stargate Program was responsible for Earth being attacked by the Goa'uld — Earth being safely ignored by them until the SGC used the Stargate and wound up killing Ra. However, if the stargate had never been dug up in the first place, then humanity would never have (re)discovered the Goa'uld until humans discovered FTL travel on their own probably hundreds of years from now... and the Goa'uld would probably have been out there waiting for them. So in the case of the overall series' problem itself, the SGC didn't create the villain, just drew their attention prematurely.
    • Stargate SG-1 started with Apophis. When they finally got rid of him, even stronger Goa'uld showed up. But that's okay, the team got good at dispatching Goa'uld. So Anubis shows up, with the full knowledge of the godlike beings who had created the stargates. But they took care of him — though it was a close one. For almost a whole month there is peace. Then the godlike Ori turn up.

      This progression is grounded in the plot by Tok'ra. He says that every time the Tau'ri defeat a System Lord an even worse one inevitably takes his or her place. By killing Ra, and others, SG-1 kept disrupting the Goa'uld balance of power, allowing more aggressive Goa'uld to sweep up now-leaderless forces and rise in threat level. They didn't cause Anubis, but probably sped up his timetable. They did make the Replicators more dangerous, by giving the nanotech precursor of the Replicators to the Asgard, from whom it was then captured. A self-application of Unwanted Assistance, the Ori only found out about the Milky Way galaxy when Daniel Jackson and Vala accidentally warped over to their home galaxy and caused a scene. An unfortunate coincidence, perhaps, but still their doing.
    • The Stargate Atlantis team woke up the Wraith and turned on the Asurans' hostility switch. Nice Job Breaking It, Hero indeed. The last episode of Atlantis was essentially the concept of when the villains skip a few levels past where the heroes are expecting.
  • The first season finale of Heroes has Molly tell us at point-blank range that there is another, much bigger bad than Sylar, who hasn't shown up yet. It turns out that the one Molly's scared of isn't even the Big Bad of Season 2; just the disciple of someone nastier... Adam Monroe, arguably the primary founder of The Company. However, in contrast to Sylar (a power-stealer with a dozen different ways to murder you), Adam is simply an extremely cunning and manipulative man who's very good at getting people to do what he wants. Oh, and who's also got a Healing Factor that makes him nigh-immortal.
    • Also, the algorithm looks to be subverted as of the second season finale: Big Bad Adam becomes Sealed Evil in a Can again, and his successor appears to be none other than Sylar.
    • Volume 3 had Arthur Petrelli, a power-draining Evil Overlord who (after stealing all of Peter's abilities) was essentially a walking Physical God.
    • Out the window with Volume 4, where the Big Bad is a non-powered government agent who leads SWAT teams with dart guns. Then again, Sylar's helping them...
    • Volume 5 has Samuel Sullivan, the superhuman Antichrist, whose Earthbending ability is powered by the number of followers he has and who, with enough followers, is strong enough to crack the Earth in half.
    • Generally speaking, apart from volume 2 and 5, it hasn't mattered who the Big Bad is, given Sylar's tendency to hijack the plot. This was rumoured to supposed to happen in volume 2 as well, but the season was left unfinished due to the 2007 writer's strike.
  • 24: The first season is about Drazen's personal vendetta against Jack and Palmer. The second is about a threatened nuclear attack on Los Angeles. This escalates to a successful nuclear attack at the beginning of Season 6. The trope is used within individual seasons as well. In season 1, the main antagonists of the first few hours are a pair of college kids, followed by a local gangster, and building all the way up to a very well-funded international terrorist group, plotting for the release of an ex-dictator with the help of a group of heavily-armed mercenaries. And it happens from season to season, with the Big Bad of season four actually working for the Big Bad of season five, with that Big Bad working for a minor villain in season six... and as it turns out, most of those villains were actually working for the Big Bad of season seven.
  • Played with on Charmed, which actually followed a Bell Curve of Evil. At first, the villains grew progressively more powerful, from warlocks, to demons, to the Source of All Evil himself. Once the Source of All Evil was blown to bits three times over halfway through the show's run things went a bit downhill. Later Big Bads included a Well-Intentioned Extremist angel, the Source's slightly less powerful rival, and finally the show's last Big Bad were the heroine's Evil Counterparts, who were roughly at the same power level they were.
  • Reversed on Mission: Impossible, largely as a result of plot decay. While in the first few seasons the IMF went up against international terrorists, tyrannical dictators, and the Red Menace, later seasons mostly found them up against the Mob.
  • In the first season of Lost, the villains are mainly unseen: the monster in the pilot, then Ethan, about whom not much is known. The main antagonist is arguably "the unknown". The second and third seasons are more about the Others. The fourth season introduced the freighties, who made the Others look more like the "good guys" they've always claimed to be. The fifth season introduced the series' true Big Bad, the immortal, pure evil Man in Black, aka The Monster. His only hindrance was that he couldn't kill the heroes directly, but he racked up a huge body count during the final season and made even master manipulator Ben look weak and powerless.
  • The new series of Doctor Who did this with their season finales. In Series 1, a far future Earth is invaded by Daleks. In the second, present day Earth is invaded first by Cyberman and then by the Daleks. In Series 3, the Master's invasion of modern day Earth turns it into a dystopian wasteland. In Series 4, Davros threatens the disintegration of all universes in all of reality. The first season led by Steven Moffat upped the threat again, with all the universes being threatened of having never existed in the first place . After that, though, the series have gone back and forth in terms of seriousness.
  • Farscape had an odd way of upping the ante each season while making old villains "join the team". First season had Captain Bialar Crais pursuing the protagonists with his one warship. At the end of the first season, Crais is usurped by Scorpius, a rival commander of the Peacekeeper force, and Crais becomes an increasingly trustworthy ally over the next two seasons. By the start of the fourth season, Scorpius is on the outs due to being spectacularly humiliated by the heroes and the machinations of the more politically powerful Commandant Grayza, so he starts to hitch rides and help out the heroes, although he remains much more evil than Crais. The fourth season then does a switch half-way through and makes the evil reptilian Scarrans the main bad guys, supplanting the Peacekeepers for top evil.
  • Supernatural: Seasons 1-2 initially had the Yellow-Eyed Demon as the Big Bad, who gets replaced by the more powerful Lilith in seasons 3-4, and then by the Devil himself in season 5. Lampshaded, along with Villain Pedigree, near the end of season five when Sam asks Dean if he remembers when they just fought things like wendigos. When it comes to the big bads, the usual downside of the Man Behind the Man structure is averted, as the lower-ranking villain usually has to free the higher-ranking villain before they can step in. Yellow-Eyes released Lilith, who went on to release Lucifer. In all, the writers are kind of shameless in using this trope. A brief timeline of the show's enemies by season:
    • In season 1, the Winchesters were fighting regular monsters since way back when Demons were introduced as the ultimate evil that could only be killed by the Colt. The first mini-boss was Meg, a low-ranking manager, and the first Big Bad was a high ranking demon, who doesn't die until the end of season 2.
    • Season 3 introduces Lilith, the highest-ranking demon of them all, but also a magic knife that one-shots any demon that isn't a Big Bad, meaning that by this time, formerly invincible/immortal demons of Meg's rank or sometimes higher would routinely get one-shotted before they can say a full sentence.
    • In season 4, we're introduced to angels, who are at the time understood to be the most powerful beings in the universe other than God Himself, and it's outright stated that nothing can kill them except another angel.
    • By season 5, this trope into overdrive as humans are killing angels wholesale with a different magic knife. It even gets to the point where Sam and Dean can kill low-level gods with relative ease.
    • Season 6 subverted this trope somewhat, but "the mother of all monsters" is still pretty high-ranking. A corrupted angel ascends to becoming a Physical God at the end, but he quickly loses his powers because his virtual omnipotence was too much of a Story-Breaker Power.
    • Season 7 introduced the Leviathans as beings so powerful and dangerous that God locked them away in purgatory to stop them from killing angels. Though this is mostly an Informed Ability because as it turns out, the Leviathans are pretty weak, routinely getting stopped by detergent, thus inverting the trope.
    • By season 8 the show's writers clearly became aware of this problem after the Lucifer arc, so while angels are still getting killed by the thousands off-screen, this trope seems to have slowed down.
    • The Big Bad of Season Eleven is a clear example of this trope, the first completely clear example of a villain powerful enough that she topped Lucifer. Lucifer can't claim to be equal to God (although he might wish he had such a status), and he was defeated without God breaking his usual policy of nonintervention. But The Darkness is God's sister, and truly seems to be as powerful as God. She poses so much more of a threat that God not only decides to fight her with his full power, but accepts that he needs the help of Lucifer (and other similarly untrustworthy allies) in order to do it.
  • The Kamen Rider series is no stranger to this trope, although it became more noticeable during the Heisei Era when they started giving the heroes Super Modes at a certain point in the show when a new tier of bad guy showed up. In Kamen Rider Kuuga the villainous Gurongi are a warrior race with a strong class system. It is only honorable that a fight must start with the weakest and after they're finished the next strongest group takes their turn.
    • Kamen Rider Double also pulls this off, but in twist. The Sonozakis don't take on Double one by one, but instead, someone else with ties to the family. One of those ties being in a relationship with Saeko, one of the family members.
    • In Kamen Rider Fourze, the first half of the series revolves around the baddies trying to find potential candidates into becoming one of their own (labelled as a "Horoscope"). One of the main villains gets the power to identify who can evolve from a normal Zodiarts into a Horoscope faster, and so, normal Zodiarts are gone, replaced by Horoscopes as MOTW.
    • Kamen Rider Gaim is a strange case in that rather than having a single villain faction, different groups of antagonists show up throughout the show's run and unseat one another. In the initial arc, Rider battles are comparable to Mons games, with Inves occasionally playing Monster of the Week. Then the Yggdrasill Corporation, creator of the Transformation Trinkets, entered the stage with newer, more powerful belts held by their Elite Four who could defeat any of the normal Riders. After that, the Inves's leaders, the Overlords show up with control over Helheim Forest and begin smacking around the New Generation Riders. In the final stretch, several Riders vie for the Golden Fruit, including Ryoma Sengoku and Mitsuzane "Micchy" Kureshima. In the very end it comes down to a battle between The Hero Kouta and The Rival Kaito over who'll get the Fruit and the power to reshape the world in their image. While all this jockeying for position is going on, Helheim Forest just quietly hangs in the background as the biggest threat to the entire planet, with some characters wanting to drop all this petty squabbling and team up to do something about it.
    • Kamen Rider Ex-Aid uses a similar structure to Gaim (successive villains and an overarching background threat), but less complicated. At the start of the show, the Big Bad apparent is Kuroto Dan, Genm Corporation's Corrupt Corporate Executive and owner of a truly staggering God complex, who manipulates both humans and Bugsters to create his "ultimate video game", Kamen Rider Chronicle. Then his Dragon Parado plays his hand, the Bugsters take over Genm Corp, and they release Chronicle with the intent of killing off humanity as payback for their cruelty towards game characters. Then out of nowhere Kuroto's father Masamune Dan, Genm Corp's previous CEO, shows up and reveals that he's had his own plans set into motion since the rest of the cast were children, claiming for himself the power of Chronicle's Game-Breaker character, Kamen Rider Chronus. Kuroto and Parado pull Heel Face Turns (of varying sincerity), and even Chronicle's supposedly invincible Big Bad Gamedeus is nothing more than a bump in the road compared to Masamune...especially after he absorbs Gamedeus when the Kamen Riders start approaching his level of power.
    • Kamen Rider Build plays with this since the Big Bad shows up from the start and is actually far more powerful than the heroes at the start of the show, but he's not as powerful as he could be and needs the heroes to get stronger for his own plan to break that limit, so he instead passes himself off a a Dragon with an Agenda, but otherwise plays it straight. The first villains, the organization Faust, start out sending Smash monsters, with the leaders Night Rogue and Blood Stalk showing up from time to time to challenge the heroes. Eventually, Faust falls apart, but by this point they've already succeeded in their goal of starting a civil war, which leads to the next villains, the Hokuto region, who not only have a Quirky Miniboss Squad made up of humans who can turn into powerful Smash, but also their own Kamen Rider. After they're dealt with, the Seito region throws their hat into the fray and sends in their own even more powerful Kamen Rider along with knockoffs of the villains from the Summer movie, forcing the Hokuto Kamen Rider to team up with the heroes for any of them to stand a chance. However, their military backer Nanba Heavy Industries (who've been a Greater-Scope Villain up to this point), takes over operations once it seems like Seito can't beat the heroes, which leads to not only replacing the Mecha-Mooks with Elite Mooks, but also Blood Stalk returning under their employ, more powerful than ever. It quickly becomes apparent though, that Nanba, along with all the other villains, were all just pawns strung along by Blood Stalk/Evolt as part of his plans. Said plans soon start falling into place, as Evolt becomes the insanely powerful Kamen Rider Evol, and spends the next few episodes drastically spiking in power just when it seems the heroes can stand up to him at his previous level, until he becomes so powerful that he decides Nanba Industries is no longer necessary.
    • Kamen Rider Zi-O has as its Monster of the Week faction the Another Riders, corrupted versions of past Riders’ powers given to people who stand for everything the originals stood against. The hero can defeat them as long as he uses the same power set as they do. After a while, the Big Bad Schwartz gets Genre Savvy and creates Another Riders that can’t have their powers copied by Zi-O, forcing him to get a Super Mode to bypass the restriction… which is what Schwartz was hoping for, intending to raise Zi-O’s powers to a point where he can steal all the Riders’ powers at once and Take Over the World. After this, he returns to sending out the ones who can be defeated easily, and when Zi-O gets all the powers he was collecting, Schwartz becomes an Another Rider of equal power, and sticks to using previous Dark Riders as his minions, since Zi-O’s powers aren’t as curb-stompy against them.
    • Kamen Rider Zero-One starts out with the Magia, out-of-control robots hacked by a terrorist group. Once all the possible Magia have been dealt with, the terrorists face the Riders themselves, getting captured and temporarily killed respectively. Then The Man Behind the Man makes his appearance, not only proving himself stronger than anything the heroes currently possess, but bringing with him a set of Evil Knockoff versions of The Lancer.
    • Kamen Rider Saber: Touma and the gang start off fighting Megid of the week, but as they get more powerful and uncover more of the overarching plot they find themselves faced by stronger and stronger foes, starting with Kamen Rider Calibur. He's followed by more antagonistic Kamen Riders, as well as the Megid executives after they take turns getting upgraded. The power scale eventually gets so skewed that Touma has to unlock a Reality Warper Super Mode to defeat the Big Bad, who ends up being a Disc-One Final Boss.
  • The Thick of It: Over the three series Malcolm's enemies have become progressively more powerful, and his conflicts with them have become more interesting as a result. In the first series Malcolm only had to contend with incompetent politicians and civil servants. By the third he had gained a genuinely powerful Arch-Enemy.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Every class and level based Tabletop Game ever, with Dungeons & Dragons being the Trope Maker. For that matter, any Tabletop Game that has experience points and character advancement ever. As the PCs get more powerful, they have to battle more and more powerful enemies.
    • This varies from game to game, but the standard Dungeons and Dragons setting doesn't really have a Big Bad per se. Instead the characters are assumed to be adventurers going on adventure after adventure with no real connection between them, and it makes sense they choose adventures that match their abilities. Being a Tabletop RPG each group is free to play this trope straight, subvert it, avert it, or whatever they choose.
  • The Necrons in Warhammer 40,000 do this in reaction to strong attacks. If the scouting parties the Necrons send first fail, they send another more powerful one, than another and another till all resistance is dead. Since the Necrons are a race of undead machines, and they are the most advanced in the galaxy, they have yet to meet resistance that would warrant awaking their more powerful weapons of war.

    Video Games 
  • Advance Wars: Advance Wars 2 has Sturm and his 4 subordinates, each of which is in charge of invading one of the countries. Naturally, the continent facing the most incompetent (story-wise) one of them gets liberated first and it gets more difficult from there. This is even noticeable in the enemy AI: Flak doesn't take advantage of his factory and produces cheap units. Adder, on the other hand, deploys a Battleship against you. On day 1.
  • Actually subverted in the end of Arc the Lad 2. After a long and grueling path to kill the four demon Generals trying to free the Big Bad, the final person you encounter is a lowly human monarch with no combat abilities or experience what-so-ever, who is rightly terrified of your party. The demon Generals used him too because The Sealed Evil in a Can can only be released by a human. Later played straight when you have to fight the Big Bad anyway.
  • Baldur's Gate manages to play-straight, avert, subvert, and then justify then justify this trope. Confused? Just keep reading.
    • Played Straight: Your character is targeted by assassins practically from the get-go. It starts with some mooks who pose no threat to even a 1st level character, then a moderately powerful spellcaster note And so on, until you finally meet the godlike Big Bad himself and easily dispatch him with all the loot and experience you\'ve taken from his minions.
    • Averted: Being an early version of an Open World RPG, you don't have to go wherever the story directs you; at least not right away. There are a lot of areas in the world that you're free to explore with their own side quests and rewards. Of course, the further out you go, the more dangerous critters/enemies you run into. If you know what you\'re doingnote  it's possible to get access to loot/experience faster than the game expects you to steamroll your way through later encounters.
    • Subverted: The Big Bad was aware that this might happen and ambushes you right after you leave the starting area. It\'s only because your Foster Father Gorion pulls a You Shall Not Pass!! Heroic Sacrifice to give you the chance to escape.
    • Justified: All of this makes sense once you learn who the Big Bad is and his place in the whole scheme of things. Slight spoiler, he turns out to be a Dragon with an Agenda; there were bosses he had to answer to, thus he couldn't devote too much time and resources to tracking you down, least he tip them off to his schemes. The assassins he sends after you early in the game had to be paid for discreetly (most likely out of his own pocket, too), but as you become more of a thorn in their side his superiors kick more money his way to deal with you. The attack outside of Candlekeep had been a one-off thing; his "duties" kept him pretty busy and that was the only bit of free time he had to make the attempt. It was also the only time he knew for certain where and when he be able to find the PC. After that, your character is constantly on the move and he has to make calculated guess as to where you'll show up nextnote , hence the reason your assailants wait for you in one place instead of chasing you down.
  • Averted in Borderlands, where you can easily get your arse handed to you by wandering into the wrong area and finding some high-leveled bandits.
  • Averted in the MMORPG City of Heroes, Paragon City is divided in many different zones, each of which has its own difficulty level. But except for a few limited-access areas, characters can go (and possibly die) anywhere they want in the city. Most MMORPGs are structured like this; the only thing stopping a low-level character from reaching high-level areas are the powerful monsters. The sorting algorithm is there, just pointed out as how you should do things, not enforced. Typically, the very high-level areas are an inordinately long walk from the low-level areas, or behind a locked door for which the key is easily acquired on the high-level side, in order to at least suggest the intended progression. However, not always: the Forsaken starting area in World of Warcraft contains a mid-level dungeon in one corner, and is directly adjacent to one of the max-level areas, with some helpful NPCs hanging around to tell new players not to go past; and the Blood Elf and Night Elf starting regions aren't much better.
  • In Dark Souls the early part of your quest is you trying to ring a couple bells while overcoming the monsters in your way. When that's done, your next objective is to earn the right to carry the Lordvessel, which means fighting through even more powerful monsters and a pair of warrior demigods. Actually filling the Lordvessel sets you off on what is basically a god hunt. The Final Boss is a fallen God-Emperor who is still fully capable of skewering you on his giant flaming sword.
  • Demonbane starts off with the heroes fighting a Mad Scientist and his Humongous Mecha of Doom with which he terrorizes the city. After a few rounds of this, the ante is upped when the Sorcerors of Anticross get involved, each of them thousands of times more deadly than said Doom Robots and aiming for global domination. After that, the protagonists start doing battle with Great Old Ones (Cthulhu included), and finally with the bastard child of an Outer God, in which the whole of the timeline hinges on the outcome of the battle. In one ending, the heroes ascend to become Elder Gods themselves, and declare war on Nyarlathotep, one of the single most powerful entities in the entire Cthulhu Mythos, across all of time and space in every universe that has ever and will ever exist.
  • Double subverted in Devil Survivor. In most routes you have to defeat the remaining three heavenly kings (events in the story have already removed the 4th). Atsuro notes that it is not the normal order to go after the strongest first (see quotes page). When you go to tackle the second, it turns out the third is with him as well (wisely deciding to fight the people who defeated the strongest of the four at the same time) and the map is full of Demonic Spiders.
  • Drakengard follows this formula for The Evil Army that Caim is fighting across the vast breadth of the land. By the end of the game, he's fighting the gods themselves, and then the Mother of the Gods, but you don't know that at the time. According to series canon he never actually fought the gods, as they went with the one ending of the five that was bittersweet and not a downer.
  • While present in most (if not all) Roguelikes, it's also downplayed in some, such as Dungeon Crawl where there's a chance some of the most powerful enemies in the game will spawn on the first couple of levels of the dungeon, and Sigfried who kills more PCs than any other named enemy in the game; or ADOM which can spawn horrifyingly out-of-depth monsters (especially in the Dwarven Halls early in the main dungeon, where the PC can encounter Balors, Ancient dragons, etc.)
  • Parodied in EarthBound. During one part of the game, you will need to defeat five moles, each of whom claims to be the third strongest of the moles.
  • The otherwise-excellent The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion shows us why this trope is useful because it lacks it and by doing so is less enjoyable. Monsters power is scaled to yours: you never have to run in terror from an overwhelming threat or carefully plan the takedown of a challenging monsters. All monsters are similar at all times. There is little sense of accomplishment in levelling up and one can complete the game's main quest while remaining at level 1. Worse, some patterns of "leveling up" make you weaker: you must pick the right skills to advance to stay still. In the end, the difficulty slider lets you change your level more than leveling up. The benefit of this system is that as a Wide-Open Sandbox the player can go anywhere and do anything without fear of getting smooshed.
  • Justified in Evolve. Each monster that appears isn't necessarily stronger then the previous one, but does have advantages compared to the previous one in order to overcome an obstacle. Kraken is smarter than Goliath, Wraith is more stealthy than both of them, Behemoth is more durable than all of them, etc.
  • Played straight and subverted in Fable II: where the Crucible has a strict progression from Beetles to a huge rock troll, but the Big Bad has a serious glass jaw and can be killed by One friggin' crossbow bolt to the face — or groin, if you prefer.
  • Fallout series.
    • Largely averted in Fallout. The game doesn't stop you from wandering anywhere you like right from the beginning, meaning that you could end up encountering enemies that are far too powerful for you to handle. Once the XP and the ammo start rolling in, however, you can tear the world up at your leisure.
    • Fallout 2 benefits from the trope. The enemy progression is: giant ants and scorpions at first then rats and geckos. The Den will probably see your first human vs. human battle with nearly everyone in leather armor, pistols or SMGs. Vault City will have metal armors and assault rifles. Redding is fairly light but piss off the Salvatores in New Reno and your ass will get lasered — the Sierra Army Depot nearby has various battle robots. If you are evil, Broken Hills will see your first human vs. supermutant battle. The New California Republic has policemen armed with gauss rifles. In gameplay terms, that means ouch. Both the raider hideout and Vault 15 is full of raiders in leather armor and boasting pistols and hunting rifles but three of them has combat armor and assault rifles. Mariposa is a deathtrap full of super mutants armed with laser rifles, flamethrowers, miniguns, you name it. San Francisco is light but Navarro and the Oil Rig are both utterly deadly with every single combatant clad in power armor and boasting energy weapons. Oh, and the Big Bad has 999 HP, a really powerful plasma cannon, a big-ass knife and about a dozen minigun turrets for backup. note 
    • Present in Fallout: New Vegas as well, depending on who you might consider evil. Listing only those who will attack no matter your faction, your first enemies consist of the geckos and giant ants wandering around, wild animals easily disposed of. The first human antagonists are very likely to be Powder Gangers. All are petty thugs and criminals armed only with what they could pillage from the prison they broke out of (pistols, dynamite, batons, the occasional break action shotgun), and any of them can be easily handled by a fast trigger finger or bashing them with a piece of old pipe. The Viper and Jackal gangs are often next and have at least basic armor and better firearms, especially since they are the first Always Chaotic Evil faction to use automatics in the form of submachine guns. Moving up brings in the Fiends, a pack of drugged up, aggressively homicidal beings with highly damaging energy weapons and mid-level kinetic weapons (e.g. the hunting rifle and service rifle), but no armor and not much in the way of tactics. The game averts the scale and takes a very large step down the moment you reach Freeside, however, as you're engaged by Freeside thugs—little more than desperate civilians acting as muggers, and easily dispatched by even low-level players. The aversion continues when dealing with the Three Families of the Strip, as their guards are quite weakly armed and their missions mostly revolve around subterfuge. For most players, Caesar's Legion will be up next; you may have started fighting them after the Powder Gangers and before the Vipers and Jackals, but the only Legion units you were likely to encounter then were the lowest-level ones equipped only slightly better than the Powder Gangers (but with more training). The bulk of their soldiers you'll be fighting now are armed similarly to the Fiends, bar the energy weapons, but they come in larger groups and are smarter, and at least some of them have real armor. Finally, after building up enough Infamy with the Legion by fighting them, they will start sending assassination squads after you, all of whom consist of elite teams with very high combat skill stats and high-tier weapons such as anti-materiel rifles, brush guns, marksman carbines, and plasma grenades. Similarly tough and well-armed troops compose the entirety of the Legion's forces during the Final Battle at Hoover Dam (but then, the friendly NCR forces are just as tough, so it's not that big of a deal).
      • New Vegas DLC is definitely sorting its enemies, considering the main enemies in each new zone. Dead Money has the Ghost People, which are melee fighters with only highly telegraphed spear or bomb throws for a ranged attack (though the Sierra Madre's holograms are less enemies and more obstacles, and not evil so much as just securing the premises via Beam Spam). Honest Hearts has the well armed but unarmored and comparatively lightly trained White Legs of differing varieties. Old World Blues has the equally violent Lobotomites, who appear in large numbers, are naturally resistant to pain and injury, are backed by robots, and have both strong conventional weapons (like the White Legs) and various energy weapons. Finally, Lonesome Road has the ghoulish Marked Men (who used to be special forces of the NCR and Legion), who uniformly have absurdly high health, the best possible weapons, and respectable armor, no matter their level.
    • In Fallout 4, the game introduces you to combat by pitting you against Radroaches, Bloatflies, Mole Rats, and Bloodbugs, all of which can be killed with a few shots or a whack from your melee. Upon reaching Concord you'll face a gang of Raiders with homemade pipe weaponry, made even easier by the Power Armor and Minigun given to you, culminating with a Boss Battle against an angry but basic Deathclaw. Once this is done, you travel to Diamond City, encountering basic Feral Ghouls, Super Mutants, and scattered Raider gangs en route. Moving from Diamond City to Vault 114 introduces the player to the Triggermen — a mobster-like gang who favor fighting in the tightly packed hallways of the Vault with submachine guns and baseball bats, and the first gang that will use real weapons against the player. Moving from the Vault to Kellogg's Hideout, the player encounters various predatory animals such as the Yao Guai and Stingwings, who are scripted to appear on the path to the place, and the hideout itself will be filled with Generations 1 and 2 Institute Synths (the robotic yet outdated infantry of The Institute who use relatively weak but fast firing laser rifles). One boss battle against Kellogg and a cinematic later and the player has the objective of traversing down south towards the Glowing Sea, where the meanest of monsters, mutants, and gangs reside.
  • Final Fantasy series.
    • Final Fantasy II uses this trope. If you go directly from town A to town B, you'll have the right level of enemies to face. Unfortunately, they forgot to tell you how to get there without wandering, and lined both sides of the path with high-level enemies, leading to slight missteps to be fatal.
    • Final Fantasy XII has a few major exceptions to the trope. Many of the early stages have extremely powerful enemies wandering around that eclipse the normal small fry. A normally leveled party at this point has absolutely no chance against them. note 
    • Invoked in Final Fantasy XIII. Barthandalus and the other Sanctum fal'Cie want the heroes to get strong enough to kill Orphan and destroy Cocoon, so they carefully controlled what Sanctum military forces went up against them, making sure the protagonists never fought anything that would outright destroy them, instead giving them just enough of a threat to strengthen them.
    • Final Fantasy XIV rarely states exactly how power any given opponent is but it still fulfills this trope in both visual design and the scale of what is at risk. But really, it's hard to deny some level of power scaling is in place when the Final Boss of Endwalker is fought while riding on the back of the Final Boss of Stormblood.
  • Strangely included in Final Liberation: even if the game allows the player to get stronger units and a better army as he wins battles, the opposing forces will always have the same overall level as the player's army.
  • Fire Emblem:
    • In one of the earliest chapters of The Binding Blade, you have the Big Bad, King Zephielnote , and feared Dragon Rider Narcian in Araphen just as Roy's plucky and low-level band of heroes arrive. Zephiel immediately dismisses a suggestion to unleash war dragons on them and delegates the matter to Narcian, who immediately delegates it to his underling: a level 7 knight. If Zephiel had just stuck around for five minutes, he probably would have won.
    • Early in Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, your group is not seen as a big threat. You start in independent countries that the bad guys have less control in. After you make it to enemy territory, a knight questions why Ashnard is spreading his force so thin near the end of the game. Ashnard's response is that he's fascinated by the strength of the group and it's implied he wants to personally fight the strongest force possible. Also, he's just plain vanilla crazy.
    • In the endgame of the sequel, Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, you fight a politician who was blessed by a goddess. Then you fight the Black Knight, who has also been blessed. Next, you fight an army of dragons led by their king, Dheginsea, who in addition to being blessed is also an ancient being who helped defeat the goddess of chaos. Next comes another ancient being who is also blessed by the goddess. Finally, you reach the damn goddess who blessed the bastards from before.
    • Awakening begins with the Theocracy of Plegia, which is only really a threat because its king is a monster and the heroes are working with such a small army. Next up is Valm, an empire from across the seas that is notable for coming close to conquering the entire continent. Finally, we come to the Grimleal cult that is in the final stages of awakening their dark god and annihilating all life on the planet.
  • F-Zero GX plays this straight, as Captain Falcon has to deal with various antagonists during the game's Story Mode, each one eviler than the last:
    • Chapter 2: "Goroh, The Vengeful Samurai". Samurai Goroh, bandit leader and Falcon's longtime Unknown Rival, ambushes and challenges him to a race around his turf, the Red Canyon, for Falcon's machine.
    • Chapter 4: "Challenge of the Bloody Chain". Michael Chain and his subordinate Gangbangers surround and attack Falcon for the hell of it.
    • Chapter 6 and 7: "Black Shadow's Trap" and "The F-Zero Grand Prix". Captain Falcon's Arch-Enemy, Black Shadow, manages to immobilize and send Falcon into a high-speed trap, summoning Blood Falcon (Falcon's Evil Knockoff) to assist him. Later, Falcon has to beat both Black Shadow and Blood Falcon during the Grand Prix.
    • Chapter 8: "Secrets of the Champion Belt". Big Bad Deathborn challenges Falcon to a race in the underworld for the fate of the universe.
    • Chapter 9: "Enter the Creators". The Creators reveal themselves and their role in creating Deathborn, and now they want to steal Falcon's soul.
  • The Godfather: The Game tries to encourage you to take on the Tattaglias first, followed by the Straccis and Cuneos, leaving the Barzinis for last. However, due to the Wide-Open Sandbox nature and lack of Broken Bridge, it's perfectly okay to take them on in any order if you're skilled enough.
  • The King of Fighters: the later end bosses tend to be stronger, but there's no consensus on which is the hardest.
  • Kingdom Hearts has an interesting example. The first game has what appears to be the creator of all Heartless, the embodiment of emotion corrupted. In Chain of Memories we see a preview of much more powerful beings called Nobodies who are the body and mind that's left over after a Heartless is created; then we find out that the main villain of the first game is only 1/3rd of the evil assistant of the real creator of the Heartless and the villain of this game is the other 2/3rds. All of this seems to imply that the true villain is reassembling himself. Then we get Birth by Sleep in which it turns out again the main villain is more than he appears to be; in this case it turns out he used to be a very old powerful keyblade Master who then possesses a much younger keyblade wielder who is then split into the main villains of the first and second game. This all leads into Kingdom Hearts III in which all the previous main antagonists, minus all the side games (unless you count Birth By Sleep a side game) combined into one holy terror of a villain.
    • The first game also features this with the Disney villains, but it's played with: The first of the villains introduced to the player character, Hades, is actually the most powerful and is fought last — and he's not at the top of their totem pole, either. (He seems to be quick to cut ties with them completely.)
  • The final boss fight in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: Ganondorf goes from gargantuan teleporting boar, to a demon head made of pure energy to a man on horseback who can summon ghost horsemen at will, to a final fight between you and him on foot with swords. But the overall difficulty ramps up: in each successive fight you lose abilities — the ability to turn into a wolf and use Midna's magic, then Zelda's magic, and eventually it's down to you and your sword. And then your fishing rod.
  • Lufia series. You beat Gades, a dark god of destruction, only for you notice there are three more powerful villains out there. In the Sinistrals Boss Rush, it's quite clear Gades is the least powerful mainly because he can't cast powerful spells.
  • Done in all the Mario & Luigi games. What's strange here though is that there are many cases of late game areas and early game areas located right next to one another. As in, part of say, the desert is explored at the beginning and part is explored at the end of the game. Given that the enemies are scaled to match this, it means that sometimes you've literally only got a four foot wall between an area with weak enemies and one with strong ones, and no real reason why the latter never seem to cross it.
    • It's also done interestingly in Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, in that the big enemies Bowser fights are actually weaker than the small ones he usually just crushes underfoot. What this means is that when Mario and Luigi revisit the area later, they find that the small enemies are the ones actually scaled to their current level...
  • Played relatively straight in Mass Effect games. In the first game, the initial antagonists are the mechanical Geth and rogue Spectre Saren, whom is eventually revealed to be working for Sovereign, a Reaper, who are Abusive Precursors intent on destroying the galaxy's organic life.
    • In Mass Effect 2, the Collectors, who are abducting human colonies to build a human-based reaper become the main antagonists. They are controlled by Harbinger, another Reaper, though most early-game enemies are just mercenaries unrelated to the Collectors. At the end of the game, Harbinger mobilizes hundreds of Reapers, all with a personal vendetta against Shepard, which will presumably need to be dealt with in Mass Effect 3.
    • Unsurprisingly, the Reapers need to be dealt with in Mass Effect 3. Again, with increasingly strong minions, who are also called Reapers, but are basically reanimated corpses.
  • Medal of Honor: Airborne: Each subsequent enemy type faced will overall be tougher to fight than the last, with the lowest classified as "Trained", then "Proven", then "Veteran", with the last few classified as "Special". Italian Blackshirts, the first enemies encountered, have a Combat Rating of 1, Heer units have Combat Ratings of around 2 and 3, Waffen-SS have around 4, 5, and 6, Fallschirmjager have 7 and 8, Panzergrenadiers have 9, and finally, The Dreaded Nazi Storm Elites are 10.
  • Metroid II drops Samus onto the title creatures' home planet with the goal of exterminating all of them. Despite the fact that in plot terms she's poking around the place more or less at random, she encounters strictly young, weak Metroids at first, and only runs into the older and powerful Zeta, Omega, larval and Queen Metroid enemies (yes, the larval form is one of the most dangerous) after she's had time to collect a bunch of upgrades. The remake goes a step further, where Samus goes from defeating the Queen Metroid and then suddenly being ambushed by her Nigh-Invulnerable Arch-Enemy and the franchise's traditional That One Boss, Ridley.
  • Most Might and Magic games starting with #3 follow the trope. You start the game in the easiest town and the more you move away from this town the harder the game becomes. Might and Magic III had a very tough dungeon, the aptly-named Maze From Hell not too far from the start point but it was locked and could only be entered much later in the game. The trope is completely subverted in Might and Magic VI though. In this game, the starting area has 3 dungeons: Goblin Watch, the starter dungeon; the Abandoned Temple, a slightly harder and longer dungeon meant to be completed next; and Gharik's Forge, one of the most difficult areas in the entire game (possibly the series) and meant for the second half of the game. The Forge is unlocked and the only way to tell it's best left for later is to enter it and watch the entire party get slaughtered within seconds.
  • NetHack generates enemies of level equal to the average of your level and the current dungeon depth. This avoids Oblivion's "every level is just as tough as you are" while still providing the same progression.
  • Not just played straight, but formalized in No More Heroes, in which you fight your way up the ranks of the official top ten assassins.
  • Another formalized example in No Straight Roads, which involves Bunk Bed Junction fighting through NSR's top chart for the best musical artists.
  • Played with in Opoona. The game has an abundance of both Bosses in Mook Clothing who are far stronger than anything else in their respective area, and enemies who simply have things like a great deal more health than other nearby enemies, so there are often much stronger enemies in an area than their appears. However, the game also likes to pull on enemies from earlier areas, leading to weak and early game enemies suddenly making a reappearance later in the game, no stronger than they were before. (However, they do have a tendency to appear in larger groups.)
  • Ōkami: Orochi's flunkies, the Spider Queen and Crimson Helm, pose very little trouble, and the Orochi himself is severely weakened after awakening from a 100-year imprisonment. The other major villains are already active presences in the world, but they are likewise diminished and can't regain their power, or even cause harm beyond their immediate area of influence, until they absorb the malevolent Life Energy of their slain brethren... culminating with Yami, Lord of Eternal Darkness, who takes all their evil power unto itself.
  • Ōkamiden likewise follows the same trope, the first three villains are relatively small time and haven't caused much trouble outside of the areas they're directly related to... then comes King Fury, a specter who intends to revive a massive superweapon with the full intention of using it to take revenge on the world. And the true Big Bad, Akuro, who's the God of Evil over even Yami, and who's so omnipotently strong killing him for good requires a heartbreaking Heroic Sacrifice from one of the characters.
  • Subverted in Painkiller. While the first boss is a skyscraper-sized undead giant that requires massive amounts of punishment to bring down, the following bosses get successively smaller. Difficulty, however, is still scaled normally until the last boss; the 4th boss is only about King Kong sized, but is the hardest to beat, while the final boss is bigger but turns out to be a pathetically easy Puzzle Boss who can be killed in seconds.
  • Zig-zagged in Persona 5. You start out fighting several very dangerous targets, by order being a PE Teacher who sexually, emotionally and physically abuses all of his atheletes, a Broken Ace artist who has resorted into fleecing and plagiarizing the work of his pupils, abusing them and letting them die for the sake of getting profit from their work, then a vicious con-man with Mafia connections. The set of 3 afterwards, however are significantly less evil then the first 3, namely a suicidal shut in, a corporate executive who used to be a much better person and parent towards his daughter until he got drowned in power and tried to sell her to an abusive man for the sole purpose of political fame, and finally a prosecutor who attempts to defend the court even when it means rigging cases, with the former and latter becoming a loyal ally of yours afterwards. The Black Mask assassin follows this trend as he too is trying to stop the Big Bad from the get-go, only for a cost of the lives of thousands, including some of the beloved parents of your teammates. Everything takes a steep slope when it comes to the Big Bad himself and the Greater-Scope Villain, as the Big Bad is a complete monster of a politican and a social darwinist that doesn't seem to exist for anything other than causing misery for all of Japan, and the Greater-Scope Villain is a false god who rigged everything up to this point for the sole purpose to rationalize his iron fisted rule towards the public. In Royal, the true final boss that you fight after the Greater-Scope Villain is even anything but evil, he's just your school counselor confidant, who is revealed as a Persona user that the Greater-Scope Villain accidentially corrupted and unleashes a salvation plan which rids the world of all suffering by rewriting history so all tragic events, especially ones that your teammates faced didn't happen. Not to say that this is implied to be just a radicalized and exaggerated version of what he is initially going to do.
  • In Pokémon the strength of the trainers and the wild Pokémon are directly proportional to how long it is until you get there. There are some aversions: Both the Viridian and Petalburg Gyms have leaders much stronger than you likely will be when you first get there, but you can't actually battle until you're at the appropriate point in the game (with the Petalburg Gym it's because the leader knows he would just kick your ass entirely otherwise). While the Kanto trainers in GSC/HGSS play this straight in that they're all leveled to be near those of someone who beat the Elite Four (which is handwaved by someone stating Kanto has started attracting a bunch of really strong trainers), the wild Pokémon avert it in that they are the same levels as they were in the first generation of games. Interestingly, the trainers still have Pokémon typical of trainers in those locations in the first game, which means they must have held off on evolving them for dozens of levels.
    • It's particularly hilarious in Pokémon Black 2 and White 2: in the original Pokémon Black and White, routes 1 and 2 were basically the game's Noob Cave, full of low-level trainers like children and schoolteachers. In the sequel, this area is locked off until the post-game and you can't access it until you beat the champion. Visiting the area after leads to the amusing phenomenon of running to the bunches of little kids with Com Mons... that are so high-level that they could easily curbstomp most of the bosses in the game. It's quite surreal being named Champion, and then promptly getting beaten by a kindergartner with a level 65 Rattata.
    • Pokémon Sword and Shield actually justifies this with its Gyms; rather than a casual event like previous generations, the Gym Challenge is a cultural event, meaning that specific protocol must be followed to ensure both protection of tradition and an effective means of weeding out the defeated for optimal entertainment. The order which the player visits the Gyms is explicitly defined (they even have an in-universe ranking system based on performance, so one can actually move up or down depending on how they match up to the other Leaders over time), meaning that the Gym Leader's Pokemon levels are preset to maintain a reasonable escalation of challenge. On the other hand, however, there is the Wild Area, a Wide-Open Sandbox where Pokémon of widely varying levels live. By the time you arrive in the Wild Area, your party likely be around level 10, but you can run into Pokémon several levels higher. The game even cautions you to be mindful of the Pokémon you run into and, when in doubt, run away.
  • The original Prince of Persia does this.
  • [PROTOTYPE]: the weapons and gear the Blackwatch are deploying to Manhattan become more and more sophisticated as the infection worsens and they begin to understand and counter both Mercer and the progressing infection's capabilities. Similarly, the infected armies begin to grow in effectiveness as they develop and evolve.
    • Justified, as Blackwatch is supposed to be low-key, operating behind the scenes with the Marines as the public face of the operation. However, as you play through the game, you'll see fewer and fewer Marines being torn to shreds by you and the Infected and more and more Blackwatch troopers. Which is nice, because the Marines are Punch Clock Villains and giddily skipping over the Moral Event Horizon is practically a requirement to join Blackwatch.
  • Quest for Glory — not so much within episodes but present in the larger arc. For instance, if you attempt to venture into the forest when you first begin Quest For Glory 1, you will almost certainly not escape alive without prior knowledge of its layout. As you acquire skills, equipment, items, and experience, you are soon able to survive the forest during the day — but you still had better stay out of there at night. Even as a top-level player, a nighttime venture in the forest is nigh-suicidal, thereby really giving it a sense of menace. However, as you progress from game to game, enemies as a whole become globally stronger so as to keep up the challenge. A Quest For Glory 1 character imported into Quest For Glory 4, for instance, would probably be killed from the suspense alone. note 
  • In Robopon, this is zigzagged. At first it's played straight: going from a schoolyard bully and his gang to a brainwashing TV idol, then to an actual gang terrorizing a town, then to a would-be-dictator. It's then averted with Dr. Disc and Prince Tail, neither of whom are evil, but played straight againwith Dr. Zero, Mad Scientist and the final boss of the game
  • Sam and Max Episodes: each episode's villain was secretly The Man Behind the Man of the previous episode's villain, and would increase in important from local criminals all the way up to President Abraham Lincoln, the Internet itself, and finally the Big Bad himself. Mildly subverted in the end, as the Big Bad was revealed to have been, all along, an annoying recurring secondary character that had appeared throughout the season. Though the first episode villain was acting alone.
  • Shadow Hearts: Covenant takes this to an extreme. Every time the heroes defeat the apparent Big Bad threatening to destroy the world, a new one appears to, yes, threaten to destroy the world. Somehow it gets softer each time; starting with the threat of demonic global annihilation, and ending with the threat of having the war-torn recent history rewritten into a more peaceful one by the unusually benevolent final Big Bad.
  • Skies of Arcadia has a variation: while Lord Galcian is the Big Bad, he isn't the Final Boss. That honor goes to Ramirez, his Dragon. While Ramirez is fanatically devoted to his boss, he's the most powerful of the game's villains.
  • The peak bosses in SSX 3 follow this pattern; The boss of Peak One is arrogant upstart Mac Frasier, followed by the gargantuan, destructive human wrecking ball Nate Logan on Peak Two, and finally Psymon Stark, an unstable musclehead who might be violating his parole by competing, on Peak Three. If you're playing as any of these guys, the peak boss is changed to 11-year old Griff Simmons on Peak One, riot grrrrrrrl Zoe Payne on Peak Two, and megalomaniac egotist Elise Riggs on Peak Three.
  • Somewhat justified in the STALKER series. You start out at the fringe of teh Zone with basic weapons and armor (usually because you've had a Bag of Spilling moment when you almost got killed somehow, or you've just come to the Zone), but you won't be facing anything more dangerous than small pockets of bandits and small-fry mutant wildlife for a while. Granted, those are nothing to sneeze at, but later on they're more of a nuisance (and a chance of getting pistol and shotgun ammo) than a threat, and will only get you killed if you get careless. Moving closer to the center of the Zone, you'll be facing heavily armed and armored troops in large numbers as well as the Zone's most powerful and frightening mutants. At least you can adapt your gear accordingly, thanks in no small part to those heavily armed troops you kill off or find dead, and their map-marked stashes.
  • Star Ocean: The Second Story: Invoked by Lucifer (or Cyril) of God's Ten Wise Men. Instead of having all ten fight you at once, he splits them up among the Very Definitely Final Dungeon in order to increase the party's chance of success. The reason for this is that he, true to his namesake, wants to backstab his way into ruling the Universe by himself.
  • Star Wars games:
    • In the first Knights of the Old Republic, you can go through the four planets after Dantooine in any order, so the difficulty actually gets easier. However, after you find the map on the first one, you get to fight a group of bounty hunters (the leader you already vanquished to get that far), after the third you get to fight Malak's apprentice, immediately after that you get to fight a toned-down version of Malak himself, and then you get to fight Malak on full difficulty in the ending sequence.
    • Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order plays this relatively straight with the enemies that Cal actually defeats, though he faces The Second Sister four times throughout the game and has an easier time each battle. The first forced boss after his intial clash with the Second Sister is an AT-ST that is relatively straightforward for him to deal with, the second is a K2-series security droid that blindsides him and can prove troublesome. Afterwards, he battles the Ninth Sister, an Inquistor over twice his size, then he is forced to fight Gorgara, a massive bat-like apex predator in a two-stage fight both in its lair and in the skies above Dathomir. The next boss is Fallen Jedi Talin Malicos, who wields both Jedi abilities and some Nighsister magick, and who Cal explicitly would have been killed by were it not for Merrin's intervention. Finally, he battles the Second Sister twice more and eventually prevails over her. And then immediately afterwards he ends up in a confrontation with Darth Vader himself, and can only run for his life while trying to slow Vader down to the point that the game's tactical guide outright tells you to run and Vader doesn't even have a health bar, unlike previous Hopeless Boss Fight against the Second Sister.
  • Super Smash Bros.:
    • Super Smash Bros. Brawl's story mode begins against the robotic Ancient Minister, then onto the Nintendo villains, led by Ganondorf and Bowser, then the series' perennial antagonist Master Hand and finally Tabuu, ruler of Subspace.
    • The World of Light starts with Kirby having to save the defeated playable cast and hundreds of spirits from Galeem. They fight spirits that range from Novice to Advanced to Ace to finally Legend, then fight the bosses like Rathalos and Giga Bowser, then finally Galeem. When Galeem is defeated, Dharkon takes his place, and the new world map is littered with even stronger Ace and Legend-level spirits and harder bosses like Marx and Dracula. Then when he's defeated, the player is taken to a final map populated almost exclusively with Legend spirits, and if the player is on the path to the Golden Ending, they fight a Boss Rush of all six bosses, and finally Galeem and Dharkon at the same time.
  • In Sword of the Stars the Von Neumanns follow this. At first all they send are probe motherships that send out lesser drones; deadly to individual destroyers and almost untouchable by missiles, but otherwise lightly armed and not much trouble when you get better weapons. That's when you see Berserkers, which are much more powerful and resilient, able to sweep aside cruisers. If you still manage to prevail against multiple Berserker attacks, they deploy the Construct, which is stronger than even dreadnoughts and can cause an Earth-Shattering Kaboom.
  • Appears in the all of the Tales Series games. You encounter stronger enemies and bosses later in the game, though scripted fights with major villains do occur. There are some accessions, such as in Symphonia and Vesperia, where you would encounter a villain that you wouldn't fight until much later in the game. Another partial-departure with it occurs in Tales of the Abyss, where you will end up repeatedly fighting these bosses called the Six-God-Generals throughout the game, and they get stronger each time.
  • Generally played straight in any given Touhou Project game, ignoring some oddness with midbosses and bonus bosses. Averted for the series as a whole, where there's no particular scaling of villain power or threat. As characters are reused, their power relative to the point in the game you encounter them is usually relative to the amount of effort they want to exert to try and stop you.
  • Subverted in Tsukihime and its sequels. The power and abilities jump all over the place. Nero Chaos is easily the strongest adversary, much tougher than Roa or any of his opponents so far have been. Satsuki presumably comes after this at some point and doesn't amount to much yet. Then we have Kagetsu Tohya with Nanaya, someone Shiki can't beat, then Kishima Kouma who mainly has the advantage of being Made of Iron. Not much good against Shiki's eyes, though. Wallachia really only seems to be a problem because even Shiki's eyes can't kill him normally. In direct combat he appears to be rather weak.
  • Averted in Undertale: While the basic enemies are generally fought in ascending order of difficulty, the bosses actually get progressively weaker (going purely by their stats) until the Final Boss. The game makes a distinction between a monster having raw power and having the skill to use their power effectively. Indeed, the so-called "weakest enemy", with stats that are mere 1's across the board, delivers what is unquestionably the toughest fight in the game (but you have to go pretty far out of your way to piss said character off enough to fight you).
    • The sorting algorithm seems to be based off the bosses' threat toward you rather than raw power level. The first boss, Toriel, is only trying to protect you from the other monsters, and attempts to avoid killing you outright. Papyrus is a Punch-Clock Villain who's only trying to capture the human. Undyne is the first boss monster that's actually trying to kill you, but she has altruistic reasons for doing so. Mettaton is a vain glory hound who is trying to kill you for his own selfish reasons. Asgore is very powerful and is out to kill you, albeit very reluctantly. Only the final monster, Flowey, is actually malevolent.
  • The PC game Vivisector: Beast Inside has this in abundance: the animalistic enemies are faced based on their level of feralness and anthropomorphism. The Human enemies also get stronger as the game goes on. In a subversion, though, the final leg of the game contains "unfinished" versions of the animal enemies that are pathetically weak and easy to take out..
  • Inverted in Wild ARMs 4. The game seems to follow this trope until you face an ancient demon with total control of space whose lover you just killed. When the enraged demon goes after you, you're only able to kill her because she expends too much energy creating and supporting Another Dimension designed to kill your party and she goes after you again despite her wounds to ensure she takes you out while collapsing the dimension. Her death causes Lambda's strategist to propose a plan to have the remaining Brionac Lieutenants attack the heroes all at once, which gets rejected because The Omniscient Council of Vagueness had other ideas. From that point on, it seems like you fight the Quirky Miniboss Squad in descending levels of power, culminating in a battle against a scientist who just stands there while you wail on him. This is exactly what The Omniscient Council of Vagueness had in mind all along, as they wanted to cull Brionac's numbers so that the surviving members would be easier to keep under their control.
  • Wizard101 follows this trope in broad strokes. Individual bosses can vary in difficulty depending on your school of magic, but the level cap and, by extension, the power of the bosses increase with each world. The game also introduces "cheating" bosses with game-breaking special rules partway through the game. Compare the recommended level for confronting the first main villain (50) with the current level cap of the game (140+).
    • The villains of the major story arcs definitely follow this rule:
      • The first arc gave us Malistaire Drake, who was once the professor of Ravenwood Academy's Death School and is no slouch in power, but as a mortal sorcerer he ultimately falls flat compared to later villains.
      • Then came the second arc's villain Queen Morganthe, who in addition to being a magical prodigy that learned directly from Merle Ambrose himself and also has access to powerful Astral magic and can completely lay waste to entire worlds of the Spiral;
      • Then third arc's villains take a massive leap in power: first, Grandfather Spider, one of the three Primordials who created the Spiral, acts as the central antagonist. Then, Grandmother Raven turns it into a Big Bad Duumvirate with her own agenda. Finally, the end of Empyrea sees The Aethyr Titan, who is so powerful that it can overpower Raven and Spider combined, usurping the role at the very end.
      • The fourth arc is split between two villains that both qualify as an escalation in threat and power: an Ancient Conspiracy of evil wizards seeking to unmake the Spiral known as "The Cabal", and a horrific sentient void from outside of the Spiral called "The Nothing".
  • Inverted in the Japanese version of Wolf Fang, where picking the harder routes will give you an easier final stage, which reflects how much of the enemy forces remain. The final bosses are still very hard.
  • X-COM:
    • Lampshaded in a bonus episode at the end of GuavaMoment's X-COM: Apocalypse Let's Play, in a scene with what would've happened had the aliens sent their biggest and baddest ships through first. It's not pretty.
    • Played straight in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The aliens spearhead their invasion not with their mighty battleships, but small scout UFOs manned by Sectoids, their puniest, least effective soldiers, carrying out low-profile abduction missions. It's only after humanity begins shooting down alien spacecraft that the invaders step up their game with terror strikes at heavily-populated areas, and larger UFOs crewed by alien shock troopers or mechanical war machines. It takes several months more for the aliens to send in their battleships, and for their psionically-powerful leader caste to actually appear in the field directing their forces, by which point XCOM will have reverse-engineered alien plasma weapons and started deploying their own psionic soldiers. And it's all entirely Justified. The invasion is a test by the Ethereals to see if humanity can balance physical fitness and Psychic Powers, and with every successful mission and psionic operative XCOM trains, we're only proving our worthiness in their eyes.
    • Played straight and justified in XCOM 2. In this scenario, the aliens averted this trope and steamrolled XCOM during the initial invasion, and have spent twenty years ruling Earth as the ADVENT Administration. To keep the humans in their shining city centers pacified, the aliens use Half-Human Hybrid peacekeeper soldiers and robotic units more than their exotic, inhuman forces. It's only after months of XCOM victories that ADVENT starts deploying their most horrifying and destructive units, like Chryssalids, Andromedons and Sectopods.
    • Justified once again in XCOM: Chimera Squad. There are three villainous organizations to contend with, each pursuing its own agenda, and Chimera Squad can only focus on one at a time. So the first group will go down comparatively easily, the second that Chimera Squad pursues will be better-equipped and -established, and the third will be on the cusp of achieving its goals by the time Chimera Squad goes after it.
  • Xenoblade Franchise:
    • The franchise has a tradition of a giant simian enemy hanging around in one the starting areas which is close to the Level Cap, teaching the player that they will be forced to avoid powerful enemies rather than kill everything in sight.
    • Downplayed in Xenoblade Chronicles. The Mechon mostly follow this, but the enemies found in the overworld can be many levels higher than you, for example, level 35 enemies that can be found in the starting area and will all join in to kill you if you try to attack one.
    • Completely averted in Xenoblade Chronicles X: there's a near max-level monster wandering around the very first area (Luciel the Eternal, who is 32 levels above the Level Cap). And you'll find extremely low-level creatures in end-game areas as well. Much of the early to mid game will have you carefully avoiding enemies that are way too powerful for you to take on (which makes it all the more satisfying when you finally are able to fight them).

  • Averted by Demon King Krodin in 4 Cut Hero, who immediately assembles a strike force of his strongest warriors and teleports in to murder heroes the moment he learns about them in order to keep them from getting any stronger.
  • Homestuck's major villains follow the Algorithm. Jack Noir is the biggest immediate threat in Acts 4 and 5, and he becomes nearly invincible once he gets Becquerel's powers. Act 5 also introduces Doc Scratch as a manipulator of the story's events, who is literally near-omniscient and has much of Jack's same powers but is much more of an intellectual threat than a physical threat. Act 6's Arc Villain is the Condesce, who lacks Doc Scratch's omniscience and Jack's raw power by herself, but proves to be a bigger threat with her use of Mind Control and animal control on Jade, who also has Jack's First Guardian powers. Then there is Lord English as the overall Big Bad of the whole story, who is far more powerful and eldritch than any of the previous villains and had the Condesce as his servant. Played with in The Homestuck Epilogues, whose main villain can manipulate others through narration but is otherwise not nearly as powerful as Lord English. As said in the author's commentary, each villain (except the Condesce) is also intended to be more meta than the last: Jack is introduced with Leaning on the Fourth Wall where he watches the heroes through screens but has no actual metanarrative powers, Doc Scratch takes over the narrative but he keeps himself out of the main story and narrates over it passively, Lord English's past self actively steals the spotlight away from the heroes to himself and corrupts the narrative with glitches until John fixes them, and in the Epilogues Ultimate Dirk can directly control other people and actions that happen in the story just through his words.
  • Inverted in L's Empire. The first Arc Villain was a Physical God who was basically invulnerable. The second one was untouchable under normal circumstances, had powerful followers and an army of Mooks but had no way to harm people by herself. The third one just had an army wielding hammers who only remained a threat because he could dimension hop at will. The fourth was a set of jokes who only got as far as they did because their targets kept beating them up before the main characters could get to them. Played straight with the fifth and final one who was an in-universe case of Only the Author Can Save Them Now. Their plans however played it straight (seeking power for powers sake -> conquering an entire world -> causing a Class X-5 apocalypse (twice) -> Time Stands Still).
  • The Order of the Stick:
    • Lampshade hung in the first book Dungeon Crawlin' Fools. The evil lich Xykon orders his minions to be placed throughout the dungeon in order of weakest to strongest as they approach his lair and orders them to be placed in small groups only. He does this expecting to be entertained as he watches the PCs hack their way through the dungeon on his scrying ball. Also, he secretly wants them to reach him. The trope is averted later on: after 600 strips, despite being defeated by an unarmed Fighter and acting like a buffoonish Harmless Villain, Xykon himself proves to be a Not-So-Harmless Villain and remains the most powerful and dangerous foe in the series, with the possible exception of the Monster in the Darkness or the Snarl. Well, the Three Fiends might be more powerful, and are certainly far more cunning, but it's unclear at this stage if they'll take over the role of Big Bad or stay content playing Chessmaster on the side.
    • Interestingly, aside from Team Evil and possibly the Three Fiends (who have yet to show their full hand), this has mostly been played straight thus far. The first notable villains the Order encountered was the Linear Guild, who attacked them twice. Later, they dealt with Kubota, a corrupt aristocrat threatening to kill Lord Hinjo, and Bozzok, the leader of the Greysky City Thieves' Guild. Next, they encounter Tarquin, Elan's father whose team subtly controls the Western Continent with an iron fist. And in book 6, there is the High Priest of Hel, serving the Goddess of Death who wants to bring about The End of the World as We Know It.
  • Lampshade hung (yet again) in this RPG World strip.
  • This is built in to the world of Tower of God, which is a sort of Role-Playing Game 'Verse without the RPG. For one thing, this means that characters get stronger and stronger, as if they are gaining levels. People climbing the Tower are called Regulars, and they are constantly tested at successively higher floors with higher and higher difficulty. Regulars are ranked from E-class to A-class in order of ascending power, and there's a lot of variation within a class, too. Regulars of higher levels are constantly becoming more powerful, apparently due to a combination of competition and increasing standards for advancement and the use of Shinsu. Those who reach the "top" — the floor of Jahad's palace — become Rankers, who gain even greater powers. They are have a rank that's simply a number indicating how far they are from being number one among Rankers. The top 1% are termed High Rankers. Usually, the higher one's rank, the more powerful that Ranker is. Some of the highest ranks are held by "Irregulars", people so powerful they can basically break all the rules of the Tower and wipe the floor with the lesser Physical Gods. Also at the top are King Jahad and the heads of the Ten Great Families, who rule the Tower. That's to say nothing of the Tower's Guardians/Administrators, who gave those rulers their power. Basically, there's a ready-made roster of individuals ranging from powerless to minor Cosmic Entity for the heroes to confront. Of course, not everyone in the Tower is automatically evil or hostile, but it's not a very nice place, and eventually, the story seems to start building up Jahad as the overall Big Bad. The protagonist Baam starts out as a beginning Regular and starts working his way up with numerous companions. Since Baam has special talents that enable him to become powerful very quickly after he gets past a slow start, he's usually overpowered for his current level — he can Curb Stomp a group of D-class Regulars in seconds after just becoming one himself, for example — so he tends to be pitted against the most powerful individuals available wherever he is. Since much more powerful beings do exist in the Tower, he occasionally has a brush with someone he has absolutely no chance of beating, like the Irregular Urek Mazino, but never really has to fight one of them properly, at least not without having someone equally powerful to help.
  • The antagonists of Weak Hero form a hierarchy in their union that is steadily taken down from the weakest to the strongest. First is Jimmy Bae, a low-ranked thug with a personal grudge against the heroes. After him is Forrest, who proves a bigger threat due to his divide-and-conquer strategy. Next is Wolf, who's the first fighter to give Gray a serious run for his money. After all of them is Jake Ji, the second strongest fighter in the series behind the leader of the Union, Donald Na himself, who's so powerful that he beat down Big Ben without taking a single hit.

    Web Original 
  • As the Dimensional Guardians from the web fiction serial Dimension Heroes continue on their journey, the Dark Overlords, despite having equal control over Creturia, seem to escalate in power. Interestingly, their forces do as well.
  • Lampshaded in The Legend of Neil. Wizzrobe lures Neil into the first dungeon full of relatively weak monsters, but wonders why he didn't lead him instead to dungeon 7, which is where Ganon's strongest minions dwell.
  • The Evil Overlord List averts this trope:
    80. If my weakest troops fail to eliminate a hero, I will send out my best troops instead of wasting time with progressively stronger ones as he gets closer and closer to my fortress.
  • Linkara mocks this in a guest appearance on The Isle of Rangoon when he refuses to defeat The Mysterious Malefactor. He points out that his villains have progressed from a semi-incompetent Mad Scientist to a reality-destroying Eldritch Abomination, and advises the characters to be happy with their "mostly-harmless schmuck of a villain".
  • Eclipse has one of the quickest escalations on record. The Starter Villain was a bartender who was taken out by both heroines in each of the first two chapters. The second major villain personally eradicated an entire country and singlehandedly wiped out most of the supporting cast by that point.
  • RWBY has one. Season 1 had Roman Torchwick a suave thief and mugger, that turned out to be working for another villain who showed up in Season 2, Cinder Fall and her underlings, Emerald Sustrai and Mercury Black, the two first characters to actually kill someone, and also Neo, Roman's new assistant who was about to do the same. Season 3, with the series being hit hard by Cerebus Syndrome, all villains get an upgrade in murderous intent, killing Pyrrha and Penny (who's a robot, so her death isn't necessarily permanent) through the season and also reintroduces Adam Taurus from Blake's prologue trailer, a violent terrorist with an obsession with Blake. It all culminates in Salem, some kind of Humanoid Abomination who can control the Grimm and has plans that encompass the entire world. All other villains in the series, Cinder and Adam included, ultimately answer to her.
  • SCP-2424 ("Hostile Walrus Cyborg ''research ongoing''"). SCP-2424 is a Video Game Boss Battle opponent who exists in Real Life. He says of himself: "I'm the first, the easiest, I'm supposed to be. I've been destroyed more times than I care to remember." He also refers to other opponents who are stronger.
  • Parodied in Reflets d'Acide, with the son "Pom, Pom, Pom", which starts with a bunch of adventurers singing about how they like to go to the forest to slaughter kobolds. As the song progresses, the kobolds are replaced by goblins, which they also slay, and then by orcs, who they prefer to hide from. Finally, trolls arrive, causing them to pull a Screw This, I'm Outta Here!.

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender is an interesting variation. They started with Anti-Villain Prince Zuko, who was superseded by Admiral Zhao as the main threat. After Zhao's death came Zuko's Dark Action Girl sister Princess Azula, the main threat for the second season, who posed far more of a threat than Zuko and Zhao combined, had none of the noble qualities her older brother had, and whom Zuko rejoined in the season finale. Team Avatar's inability to adjust to her threat level quickly enough led to her dealing them a crushing defeat at the end of Book 2. The variation comes from Fire Lord Ozai being identified as the Big Bad from the very start of the series, both the audience and the protagonists fully aware that no matter how many enemies they face, he would remain their ultimate goal. In addition, Azula remains a massive threat for the rest of the series, even after her father takes a more active role.
  • Inverted in Ben 10, where each progressive seasons' Big Bad would actually be less powerful than the previous one (along with having smaller plots and fewer episodes dedicated to their plot arcs). Season 1's Big Bad was Ben's Arch-Enemy, the most feared alien in the galaxy, bent on galactic conquest, who punches mountains apart and bodyslams buildings hard enough to make them explode. The following seasons featured as Big Bads an 11-year-old who shared the hero's superpowers and whose sole goal was getting revenge on the hero, an alien ghost who "only" wanted to Take Over the World, and finally a guy in Powered Armor who only appeared in one episode (albeit a 2-part, 1 hour one), who had to assemble a team of previous secondary villains to do all his fighting for him, and whose big plan was to steal a Applied Phlebotinum battery that allowed his power armor to shoot Eye Beams.
  • In Code Lyoko, XANA's power increases every time they return to the past. So, though the Lyoko Warriors get better at fighting them, new and tougher monsters appear on Lyoko, and the specters sent to the real world gain greater powers and versatility over time.
  • Danny Phantom.
    • In the series, Danny's first major foe was a Lethal Chef who did little more then throw a hissy fit over a changed menu. Slowly, but surely he combats more appropriate villains ranging from a Hunter of Monsters, the Big Bad, a sadistic emotion sucker, and his own Bad Future self. By the last season, he's battling ghosts with godlike powers.
    • In the movies, Danny Phantom played with this one a bit. In each successive movie, the villain's physical power and general imposingness decreased, but their actual threat level increased. The first movie villain, Pariah Dark, was by far the most powerful character in the series (four Dannys in four Humongous Mecha could barely restrain his de-powered form), yet he only managed to control the town for a day. Next came Danny's Magnificent Bastard future self, followed by a frail ringmaster named Freakshow who nonetheless managed to warp the entire country to his liking. The biggest bad of the series ultimately turns out to be an asteroid.
  • Surprisingly, The Fairly OddParents...Timmy first starts off having to deal with mean babysitters and school bullies, eventually upgraded to his crazy fairy-hunting teacher. Now he routinely has to deal with the Evil Plan-loving Pixies and Anti-Fairies who seem to be content with nothing less than the total domination and remaking of both Earth and the magical world. This reflects his getting deeper into the world of magic, where the stakes are higher: later on there is The Darkness, which is a threat to the normal galaxy and the magical universe. Timmy is thrown right into the midst of it.
  • Played straight with the epic multi-parters on Gargoyles. "Awakening" had Demona and Xanatos, who are certainly dangerous enemies but weren't really trying to do anything beyond controlling Goliath and his clan for use in their future schemes. In "City of Stone", Demona has acquired a spell that lets her turn the entire human population of New York to stone, making her much more dangerous. In "Avalon", the enemy is the Archmage, who is made even more powerful by the Artifact of Doom he's toting. In "The Gathering", the clan is up against Oberon, a being with godlike powers and no morals beyond his immediate whims. Finally in "Hunter's Moon", Demona's back again, this time with a virus that can destroy all non-gargoyle life on earth, making her even more dangerous than Oberon, even though she's far less powerful. Averted in the bulk of the series, though, where they face enemies of varying power levels throughout.
  • Jackie Chan Adventures justifies this by saying that, due to the cosmic Balance of Good and Evil, if one evil is destroyed, it causes another, stronger evil to fill in the gap (the heroes only receive the Old Master's warning right after the villain's been destroyed, which leads to their Sorting Algorithm issues). Other than that, the series more or less kept Shendu as the strongest foe of choice.
  • Justice League makes it clear that they formed (and reformed) the League because they anticipated progressively stronger enemies. In a neat inversion, the Legion of Doom was organized specifically because the League was so powerful and the bad guys needed some sort of fraternity to put them on a similar level.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic looked to be heading this way, but then averted it.
    • First, there was Nightmare Moon. Likely more powerful than her sister Princess Celestia, she has done everything in her power to hinder the main cast, but underestimated them and eventually was overcome once they acquired the Elements of Harmony.
    • Then came Discord, a Reality Warper who was so powerful enough that Celestia and Luna had to team up to defeat him last time. Against the main characters he's able to neutralize the Elements of Harmony twice (once by stealing them, and once by breaking the friendship that powered them).
    • This is averted with the next villain however, Queen Chrysalis, who is substantially weaker than Discord and possibly weaker than Nightmare Moon. However, she is also a shapeshifting Emotion Eater who successfully brainwashed the captain of the Royal Guard to expose Canterlot to her invading horde, and who—as a result of absorbing all the love surrounding a wedding—beat Celestia in a fair fight. She’s also clever enough to quickly prevent the main cast from acquiring the Elements of Harmony, thus increasing the tension through denying them most of the resources they previously counted on.
    • The next villain, King Sombra, is hard to place. He's certainly stronger than Chrysalis (who even powered up struggled with Celestia, while King Sombra took both Celestia and Luna to take out), it's unclear just how powerful he actually is as he spends most of the two-parter unable to directly attack the group. However, he's clearly more dangerous than any preceding villain due to being Crazy-Prepared to the point his Near-Villain Victory comes without him actually needing to do anything.
    • Lord Tirek with his ability to drain the powers of others has the potential to become enormously powerful, even if he doesn't start that way, and by the end, he has become more powerful than anyone else in the show so far.
    • Season 5 throws us another straight out aversion in Starlight Glimmer, who's the first major villain to be just another normal pony. A very skilled and smart pony, but at the time of her debut episode only influential enough to threaten one small village (which doesn't make her any less scary). In the Season 5 finale, however, Starlight proves to be a much greater threat. Twilight notes that Starlight is one of the most magically talented ponies she knows: she has rewritten a time travel spell to let her significantly alter time, and has mastered self-levitation magic and can fight Princess Twilight to a standstill in magic, possibly for an eternity. Said time spell causes several apocalyptic futures, the last of which is even worse than every villain before.
    • Season 8 downright inverts this trope with Cozy Glow, who is only a filly, albeit an extremely psychopathic one, and whose scheme almost results in Equestria losing all of its magic.
    • Season 9 introduces Grogar, who is established to be a Monster Progenitor and the most powerful evil force in Equestria, bringing together a Legion of Doom of all non-reformed villains. This then gets subverted with the plot twist that "Grogar" was just Discord impersonating the historic villain, and the villains of the Grand Finale are the already-established Chrysalis, Tirek and Cozy Glow.
  • In an aversion, while he's received some upgrades over the years, Megabyte from ReBoot is not only still the main villain, but with the exception of the now-deleted virus Daemon, he seems have become the most powerful virus in existence!
  • Teen Titans both uses and ultimately subverts this with its seasonal Big Bads
    • Season 1: Slade is a very cunning Empowered Badass Normal against a superpowered team. He can take any of them one-on-one, but against the whole team he gets curbstomped badly. As a result, he spends most of his time hiding in the shadows and plotting.
    • Season 2: Slade is back, but this time he's got Terra, one of the most powerful characters in the show, working for him. He loses only when she turns on him.
    • Season 3: Brother Blood has a wide range of Psychic Powers that let him control large groups of minions and handle the entire team with minimal effort. It takes the power of Deus ex Machina to finish him off.
    • Season 4: Trigon is the demonic personification of evil and is every bit as tough as that implies. Once he's out of his can, he causes Hell on Earth in moments and had every intention of conquering the entire universe. He only goes down at all because Raven is his daughter.
    • Season 5: The Brain breaks the pattern. He's very smart but physically helpless. Even with his Quirky Miniboss Squad and Legion of Doom allowing him to present a global threat, he's still not on Trigon's power or danger level.
  • The Guild of Calamitous Intent of The Venture Bros. fame. Enrolled villains (and protagonists alike) are ranked in order of their threat level; a low-ranking villain such as The Monarch is a good fit for a wash-up scientist like Doctor Venture, while a full-fledged superhero such as Captain Sunshine needs an equally sinister antagonist to match him. Villains and protagonists can increase (or decrease) in rank if their skills improve (or degenerate). And it's all good for keeping the bureaucracy happy, and making sure there's no (well... fewer...) outright murders of one or the other.
  • Subverted in the cartoon adaptation of W.I.T.C.H., where the relative power levels of Big Bads, Dragons, and Mooks seem to spike up and down from time to time. The most powerful evil entity in the series is Prince Phobos, fought by the girls at the end of season one and a bit at the end of season two. He's always dangerous, and always requires the guardians to pull some kind of plan to beat. Season two's villain is Nerissa, less powerful but more cunning than Phobos. Season two's Quirky Miniboss Squads elevate in power throughout the season (from Phobos' former mooks to custom-created elemental monsters and finally to the former Guardians themselves), but despite this, Nerissa's power remains generally the same, even as she absorbs Hearts throughout the season. Nerissa frequently runs from the guardians rather than fight them, as she gets trounced whenever she faces them directly. She's still a threat because of her planning, however. By the end of it all, the final battle of season two is against a bad guy who's as powerful as Phobos and Nerissa combined: Cedric, who has consumed Phobos in order to absorb his and Nerissa's powers, along with the powers of the former Guardians, but because he doesn't know how to shoot elements, he goes down in a few minutes in spectacular fashion.
    • Once again, they never actually fight Phobos at his normal level, as all fights between him and the main characters have been when he's gained some sort of power boost.
  • In X-Men: Evolution, the team starts out mostly going up against the Brotherhood, a gang of mutants who are powerful, but not terribly competent (or, for the most part, terribly evil), making them fairly easy opponents. At the end of the first season they meet Magneto, who is far more powerful, cunning, and professional than his pawns, and he only gets later on when he starts being accompanied by his elite Acolytes. In the third and fourth seasons, though, the focus shifts to Apocalypse, the most powerful mutant ever, capable of defeating almost any other character in the show with ease and possessing world-spanning plans.
  • Xiaolin Showdown features a strong example of this, here is a list of the big bads as they vary from season to season:
    • S1: Jack Spicer a self-proclaimed "evil boy genius" who, despite being whiny and idiotic, still put up a good fight, and kept the monks on their toes throughout the first season. Ever since then, outside of a few Throw the Dog a Bone ,oments, he's treated as little more than a nuisance, that the monks make short work of, especially in season 3. Although he did get an epic Not-So-Harmless Villain moment in the first part of the Grand Finale when he became a Future Badass ruler of the world, and even captured the other Heylin villains, all just because Omi was gone.
    • S1-S3: Wuya is a sentient Sealed Evil in a Can, remaining a (mostly)-harmless ghost for the majority of the Show's run, but when her true form is finally revealed in the season 1 finale, she's Nigh-Invulnerable and singlehandedly conquers the World. They defeat her by getting a MacGuffin from the last person who beat her, that turns her back into a ghost. She's once again re-fleshed in season 3 albeit with her powers nerfed by another villain for being too untrustworthy. Still she's a worthy foe whenever she's fought.
    • S2: Chase Young is introduced as an unstoppable martial arts master with a taste for dragons, he soon blossoms into the new big bad for season 2, enacting a nefarious scheme to turn one of the heroes to the Heylin Way. He's so competent, he's never been bested in straight 1v1 combat by the main characters. While still playing a very active part in season 3, he eventually gets overshadowed by....
    • S3: Hannibal Roy Bean the show's embodiment of true evil, the only character that has no trace of likability to him. His theoretical victory over the protagonists is described (by Chase Young, no less) as being WORSE than the end of the world. Far...far worse. While not exactly stronger than Chase, he's easily more dangerous.
  • ThunderCats (1985) had a form. While they kept using most of the same major villains later in the show, the mutants became more of a threat under Ratar-o's more competent leadership. Mum-ra gained the Sword of Plun-darr and lost his weakness to mirrors. And we were introduced to a new group of villains in the Luna-taks, who were so powerful as a group they usually only showed up singly or in pairs so the Thundercats would have a chance of winning.
  • Star Wars Rebels ultimately uses this formula, at least in its first season. The pilot, Spark of Rebellion, begins with easily-conquered stormtroopers who can't do squat against the rebels. In the midst of the episode, we are introduced to Agent Kallus, a formidable ISB agent. In the third episode of the main series, the Inquisitor makes his first real appearance, and the heroes barely escape with their lives. In the midst of the season, Grand Moff Tarkin appears, and executes his most incompetent soldiers, proving that he means business. And come season's end, the Inquisitor is dead, but he is replaced by Darth Vader. It's unlikely the trope will be played straight from this point on (Darth Vader is the Empire's greatest warrior, after all), but time will tell.
    • Season 2 starts off averting this with Darth Vader curb stomping all the heroes, their Rebellion cell and undoing all their hard work on Lothal. Then played straight with the heroes facing off first against Imperial characters such as Agent Kallus, then the Seventh Sister and Fifth Brother are introduced to replace the Inquisitor. The season switches plays with this for several episodes by switching threats, until the finale re-introduces Maul. Who quickly kills the the Inquisitors and proves much more cunning, aiming the seduce Ezra to the Dark Side and blinding Kanan. Last of all, Darth Vader returns near the end, forcing Ahoska to hold the line while the others escape.
    • Season 3 looks to continue this with the introduction of Grand Admiral Thrawn as the new major threat and Maul still around from the previous season's finale.
  • Wander over Yonder starts off with Lord Hater as the Big Bad. Despite his power, Hater was childish, incompetent, insecure, short-tempered and overall more of a comedic villain than anything. In fact, by the time Season 2 rolls around, he had been upgraded to Anti-Hero.
    • Then Season 2 brings along a new Big Bad by the name of Lord Dominator. A sadistic Omnicidal Maniac who wants to destroy the galaxy simply For the Evulz. Not only is she the first character to outright murder another sympathetic character onscreen, she also basically succeeds in her plan, destroying every planet in the galaxy save one, though the planets do end up springing back to life after some time.
  • In Steven Universe, it first appears that there is no greater threat than the monsters the Crystal Gems fight early on, which are soon revealed to be simply other Gems who have lost their minds. However, once the plot about the Crystal Gems' rebellion against Homeworld is revealed, a Homeworld Gem called Peridot becomes the first major recurring villain. She poses a decent threat for a while but is fairly easily redeemed and befriended once the Gems are able to capture her unarmed and realize that she isn't truly evil, just indoctrinated to Homeworld's views. This leaves Peridot's escort Jasper, who is much more dangerous and personally invested in fighting the Crystal Gems, to fill that role. After her defeat, Topaz and Aquamarine show up and are an even bigger threat. And beyond them, there's the leaders of all the Homeworld Gems, the Great Diamond Authority.

Alternative Title(s): Sorting Algorithm Of Villain Power