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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.


Occasionally, a particularly strong or evil villain will ignore this trope and arrive early to beat the hell out of the heroes, only to leave them alive because they're Not Worth Killing. Villains who use this as a tool are often Not So Harmless Villains. Sometimes, rather than toss a stronger villain at the heroes the writer might decide to surprise them with an Outside-Context Problem that uses different tactics than brute force.

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


Another downside of this trope is viewers who get into a show later may find early villains lame by comparison when they go back to catch up - "Pshaw — we're supposed to be worried about this guy? He can't even blow up a galaxy!" Villain Decay can be used to soften this blow; if the Big Bad ends the season a lot lamer than he started, the next season's enemy doesn't have to actually be any stronger to give the impression of an increasing level of tension.

This trope is particularly common in 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.

See also Sliding Scale of Villain Threat, which breaks down the scales of villainy.

Contrast Evil Evolves.

Compare Always a Bigger Fish, Lensman Arms Race, So Last Season, Sequel Escalation, Rule of Escalating Threat.

Since the examples on this page necessarily detail most of or the entire run of their series and what villain later gets replaced by whom, beware of spoilers.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Dragon Ball:
    • Played Straight for most of the original Dragon Ball. The first major enemy Goku faces is Pilaf, who is laughably weak and incompetent. The Red Ribbon Army is more dangerous and powerful with General Blue being their strongest soldier who nearly kills Goku several times. They then hired Mercenary Tao who utterly beats Goku. After that, most of Goku's opponents were either a little weaker than Tao or a little stronger, with only Tien really pushing him. That is until King Piccolo comes, he is stronger than any enemy Goku ever faced and his final son Piccolo Jr is even stronger, closing out the original anime.
    • Dragon Ball Z starts off by giving characters an explicit numerical "Power Level". note  This held out until the middle of the Frieza arc, when the devices that were used to calculate these combat ratings were destroyed; at this point, the Arc Villain's strongest form had a rating of around 120,000,000, whereas just two months earlier the heroes had been hard-pressed to deal with an opponent nearly seven thousand times weaker (Vegeta, then at 18,000). The plot helps support the progression; Raditz arrived first, and called on a pair of stronger allies; the heroes went after their boss next; the next Arc Villain was created from said boss' cells, plus those of the powered-up heroes, and so on. The final villain was a mild subversion because, while its final form was not as strong power-wise as some of the other transformations, its unique physiology made it nearly impossible to kill and its nature became far more merciless. If you go back to watch the series again, you soon realize that even the first fight was equally as tough as the last. The numerical concepts of "power levels" were quietly dropped after the Frieza Saga, since the people who used the concept were all dead. Starting from Frieza and continuing onward, each Arc Villain was the most powerful and dangerous being in the universe, even more so than the previous most powerful and dangerous being in the universe. This was justified by the later Arc Villain being artificially created and not actually existing at the time Frieza was named as the most powerful, or was sealed away so long ago that people forgot the being even existed outside of one of the Top Gods.
      • Incidentally, Frieza, the Arc Villain with 120,000,000 power level in question, was actually significantly more powerful than every other character even in his own arc; Goku, who defeated him, was actually several million points weaker, and only won because he got a power boost in the form of going Super Saiyan for the first time at the 11th hour. Prior to this boost, Frieza could easily have killed Goku and every other Z fighter whenever he wanted- that he didn't was down to Bond Villain Stupidity as he was irked that Goku, while leagues weaker than Frieza, was still much stronger than any Saiyan he had ever faced, and Frieza wanted to crush him with as little effort as possible out of spite.
    • Subverted in the special Yo! Son Goku and His Friends Return!!, in which an alien menace arrives and is easily defeated, because it arrived a bit too late in the chronology, and everyone was so enormously powerful that it really didn't ever have a chance at all. Specifically, the two villains are noted to be as powerful as Frieza. Goku remarks that it should be a good match for the kids.
    • Subverted in Dragon Ball GT, where the first Arc Villain turned out to be pathetically weak, but had the ability to possess the bodies of the various insanely superpowered supporting characters surrounding the hero in order to increase its strength. It is later played straight after possessing Vegeta where he becomes much stronger than a Super Saiyian 3 Goku, and a Super Saiyan 4 was needed to defeat him. The next Arc Villain was Super 17, who forced Goku to go all out, and the final Big Bad, Omega Shenron was much stronger than Super Saiyian 4 Goku on his own. It took a fusion and an Universal Spirit Bomb to take him down, making him the strongest villain in the GT canon.
    • Beerus from Battle of Gods is even higher in power than any villain in canon, being an official "God of Destruction" for his universe and is feared by all the gods in the universe. He curb stomps Super Saiyan 3 Goku without trying and the Super Saiyan God form, the strongest Super Saiyan state at that point, only forced him to go to 70% of his power and Goku still lost. That's right, Goku famous for almost always winning, was outmatched by someone who will always be better than him. And the real kicker, his assistant Whis is actually much stronger than him and there are eleven other universe's Gods of Destruction who could be stronger than Beerus.
    • This trope is actually played with in Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection ‘F’, in that the main antagonist of the movie is once again Frieza. However, this time Frieza DIDN'T forget to level grind and instead "decided to train for the first time in his life". The results are... dramatic.
    • Averted for most of Dragon Ball Super.
      • Beerus is the first enemy the Z-Fighters face and he is so far above their level that Goku is still weaker than him even after training with Whis.
      • Frieza is a threat after coming back to life, training, and gaining an ultimate form that surpasses Super Saiyan Blue Goku, but he's still weaker than Beerus and would have been no threat at all if Goku and Vegeta worked together. His army is also easily defeated by the Z-Fighters who included Master Roshi and were missing several of their heavy-hitters like Buu, Android 18, and Gotenks only appears for a short time.
      • In the Champa Saga, while there is no villain per se, only Hit on the U6 team poses a threat to Goku and Vegeta in their god forms (3/5 of the team are comparable to their base forms, 1/5 comparable to their Super Saiyan 1 forms), and strength-wise he is at best a little above Golden Frieza. Skill-wise, however, he is far more dangerous. Champa himself may be a little weaker than Beerus, but he is still far above any of the heroes since he was ready to murder the entire U6 team despite all the power they showed and Goku is helpless to do anything about it. The next Arc Villain of an anime-only arc, Copy-Vegeta, is as strong as Super Saiyan Blue Vegeta, which makes him on par with Golden Frieza and Hit in terms of pure power, but much weaker than the latter skill-wise. The manga more explicitly averts this with both the four lower tier team members (Goku mentions even Fat Buu could beat them easily, and a rusty Piccolo does fine against their third-best) and Hit (Goku states that Vegeta easily could've defeated Hit if he wasn't worn-out and surprised by Hit's Time-Skip, making Hit a lot weaker than Golden Frieza, just not in terms of skill).
      • In the Future Trunks Saga, Goku Black is stated by Future Trunks to be only as strong as Super Saiyan 3 Goku (notable in the manga version as this Goku isn't much stronger than he was in the Buu arc, meaning manga Black is only around Majin Buu's lower forms). However, Black is able to improve rapidly much like Hit, and by the time Goku and Vegeta confront him in the future he is able to go toe-to-toe with Super Saiyan Blue Vegeta. Then it's revealed that he has a Super Saiyan form, Super Saiyan Rosé, which he uses to overwhelm SSB Vegeta and he's still getting stronger. Then averted with Future Zamasu, who in the anime is at least weaker than the SSBs and in the manga is weaker than even Cell (he admits that Super Saiyan Goku is stronger than he is), but has a plethora of abilities that make him useful as support for Black. Then it gets taken Up to Eleven for the final four episodes of the arc where Black and Future Zamasu perform a Potara Earring Fusion to create Fused Zamasu, who delivers an effortless Curb-Stomp Battle to Goku, Vegeta, and Trunks all at once, all at their full power, forcing Vegito to make a return appearance to stand a chance against him, although whether Fused Zamasu stronger than Beerus depends on the version. In the manga, he isn't since Shin states only Vegito surpasses Beerus and Vegito crushes manga Fused Zamasu effortlessly, while in the anime he is because he can match Blue Vegito blow for blow. Then it's played horrifyingly straight for the first time ever when Fused Zamasu loses his physical form and becomes Infinite Zamasu. This entails becoming either an insane Eldritch Abomination with the ability to consume the entire future multiverse and break time to the point where he can devour the present timeline as well (anime) or an infinitely-duplicating version of Fused Zamasu with Complete Immortality (manga), something that Beerus could never hope to achieve (nor desire to achieve). In both versions, nothing hurts him anymore and it takes the Top God himself, Zeno, to end Fused Zamasu once and for all.
      • In the Universal Survival Saga, none of the competitors even come close to Infinite Zamasu in terms of danger (they are not allowed to kill in tournament rules and can all be killed at least theoretically, for one), and only three of them (Agnilasa, Top, and Kale/Kefla) are clearly above SSR Black (With Top as a Destroyer and Kefla maybe being roughly comparable to Fused Zamasu). Only one, Jiren, clearly exceeds Fused Zamasu.
      • That said, Jiren counts as another example of the trope being played straight (besides Infinite Zamasu). Whis explicitly says that he's stronger than a God of Destruction that's stronger than Beerus (it's implied said God is Belmod, who admits Jiren is stronger than he is). After seeing him show off a bit of power, Whis not only reaffirms what he said, but notes that Jiren may very well have surpassed the level of the Gods of Destruction in general. Beerus, in the same scene, is absolutely terrified by what he senses from Jiren's strength and wonders how any being could have so much power. The best part? All of that is before he actually goes to full power. When he does, not only is Beerus practically pissing himself, but even Whis seems a little alarmed. It's telling that the 11th-Hour Superpower needed to give Goku a bit of a chance against Jiren (he would straight up No-Sell anything else) can't be accessed willingly, even by the end of the Universe Survival arc. The narrative basically acknowledges that Goku being able to fight on par with Jiren completely throws off the Fixed Relative Strength previously established that necessitates Beerus being above the heroes.
      • Then came the titular antagonist of Dragon Ball Super: Broly. While fans continue to debate whether Broly at full power is stronger or weaker than Jiren, official merchandise labeled him as the strongest foe faced yet, and Goku asserts his belief that he is stronger than Beerus. After all, it does require Gogeta as a Super Saiyan Blue to beat Broly.
  • Robotech carried this off by declaring that Zentradi < Masters < Invid. Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles added The Children of the Shadow to this progression. However, it's not so simple, as in terms of raw power it's Zentradi > Masters > Invid > Children of Shadows:
    • The Zentradi are, in absolute terms, the strongest faction of all, having a force of six million warships capable of taking on all the other factions at once and winning. They're only defeated due a combination of their advance force of one million ships defecting (thus providing Earth with the numbers they need to take on the Zentradi), Earth's secret weapon depleting their forces even further and the Zentradi having an unexpected weakness, and even then they casually decimate Earth;
    • The Robotech Masters, creators of the Zentradi, have the most advanced technology of all factions, but lack the sheer numbers of their minions and can't make the most of their advanced technology due a lack of Protoculture. This allows the defenders of Earth (whose technology has advanced in the meantime and whose weapons don't suffer from Protoculture depletion) to score a Pyrrhic Victory;
    • When they arrive on Earth the Invid are at their weakest: they too suffer from Protoculture depletion, and their might suffers even more due only half their race arriving on Earth (the other half is busy attacking the Robotech Masters' former empire, getting destroyed by the Robotech Expeditionary Force in the process). However the defenders of Earth are too weakened by the battle against the Masters to stop them, and by the time the Robotech Expeditionary Force has rebuilt their own forces and returns the Invid have used the Protoculture on Earth to rebuild their own forces;
    • The Children of Shadows are weaker than the rebuilt Invid, and are a danger only due them having supplied the Robotech Expeditionary Force with boobytrapped technology and the Invid having left with all the Protoculture on Earth and the means to produce more, plus the SDF-3 disappearing with the only other mean to produce Protoculture.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! and Yu-Gi-Oh! GX presented villains not only in ascending order by menace, but also, for some reason, effeminateness. For instance, the first Big Bad in season 1 of GX was a withered old man; Season 2's villain was a younger, more strapping adult male. Season 3 had a Hermaphrodite Duel Monster. The effeminateness of the villain ties directly into their personal interest towards the hero. At first, the Big Bad is usually just interested in a certain trinket or item carried by the protagonist, while the next is usually more interested in the protagonist's actual abilities and strengths. The biggest of the Big Bads always seemed to have some kind of intimate interpersonal relationship with the hero, which would border on Ho Yay (since both sides in this series were invariably male), if only the Big Bad wasn't trying to enslave/murder them for some deep, scarring betrayal they blame on the protagonist. There are only two exceptions: Dartz, in the Doma Story Arc, and the Big Bad of the Capsule Monsters arc, which, as far as the rest of the series is concerned, never even happened. Even the original series (never released beyond Japan and taking place before the anime we all know and love) has most of the villains being random thugs met in chance encounters, fitting into the algorithm perfectly.
    • This is played straight throughout the continuum of all three series so far, the first villains were merely bullies that wanted to abuse their authority, then came Seto Kaiba who was willing to kill the protagonists as well as being a very high-ranking member of the corporate world. Then came Shadi and Dark Bakura, both with magical powers, with the latter being far more malign and able to alter reality, then came Pegasus who was a more personal threat with Pegasus who wanted the Puzzle to revive his dead lover, and a much longer arc. Marik arrives and really raises the Cerebus Syndrome with far more deadlier stakes involved and more personal past to the Pharaoh. Once his dark side is revealed, it's either a Take Over the World or watching the world fall to ruin depending on which dub you watch. The biggest threats outside of Sieg who merely wanted to best Seto, were Dartz and Zorc, the who was being summoned by Dark Bakura]], with the former being even more dangerous as his ambitions to destroy humanity involving a dangerous Eldritch Abomination needed offerings from two worlds with life forms, while the latter wanted merely The End of the World as We Know It. GX comes around and while Kagemaru merely wanted youth, Saitou, or rather the Light Of Destruction, wanted universal dominance and was kind of responsible for everything in the series, while Darkness' Assimilation Plot was threatening, it was not on the same scale. 5Ds introduces Z-ONE who is implied to have complete control of the space/time continuum and finally Zexal has Dr. Faker with the implied goal of destroying other dimensions.
    • This is also played straight in regard to the villain's ace monsters, each of which is more powerful or at least more visually impressive (to invoke this trope) than the last. To recap:
      • Kaiba was the first Villain, and his ace monster was the "Blue Eyes White Dragon", a 3000 ATK beatstick. In the early days, where players had 2000 Life points, monsters also didn't require tributes and card effects weren't as common, that's all it needed to be a major threat. It sure didn't help Kaiba had three of them.
      • Pegasus, the second main Villain, had " Blue Eyes Toon Dragon", a more difficult to destroy version of Kaiba's ace, and once his toons no longer sufficed he brings out "Reliquished" and it's upgraded counterpart "Thousand Eyes Restrict", which have 0 ATK and DEF but horribly broken effects that allow them to possess Yugi's monsters and negate their own destruction.
      • During the first Virtual World Arc, the Big Five's Ace monster was "Five-Headed Dragon", a 5000 point beatstick that couldn't be destroyed by anything other than Light monsters. The shows 4 premier examples of Instant Awesome: Just Add Dragons! cannot defeat it, forcing Kaiba and Yugi to fuse their Ace cards together.
      • During the second Virtual World Arc, Gozaburo Kaiba's Ace card was Exodia Necross, a zombified counterpart to the game's Instant-Win Condition. It started off with a respectable 1800 ATK, could not be affected by card effects, could not be destroyed by battle, and gained 1000 ATK and DEF each turn. By the time Kaiba had figured out it's Kryptonite Factor, it already had 5800 ATK, at the time the highest value any villain monster had achieved.
      • Meanwhile, the Big Five and Noah from the same arc have respectable aces of their own:
      • The Big Five bring back Five-Headed Dragon for their combined duel with Yugi and Joey, and when they manage to destroy it, they summon Berserk Dragon to replace it, which isn't as powerful as Five-Headed Dragon, but is still a sizable threat with 3500 ATK and the ability to attack four times a turn (though it loses ATK after every turn), not to mention that beating Five-Headed Dragon put Yugi and Yoey into a vulnerable position and they can't use the same monster they used to destroy the Five-Headed Dragon.
      • Noah's deckmaster Shinato's Arc can summon monsters that were previously destroyed for every monster his opponent has or use them to recover his life points by a huge amount. And if it somehow gets destroyed, he can summon the even more powerful Shinato, King of a Higher Plane, which has 3300 ATK, cuts his opponent's life points in half every time it destroys a defense position monster and gives the lost life points to him, and can remove itself from the playing field if it would get destroyed (which would make him lose due to the rules they were using), meaning that the opponent has to settle for winning the normal way by depleting the thousands of life points he's accumulated.
      • During the Battle City Finals arc, and by extension the entire Battle City arc (which was interrupted by the second Virtual World Arc), Yami Marik is the main Villain and his Ace monster is the "Winged Dragon of Ra", the strongest of the Egyptian Gods. If that description would not suffice, bear in mind that it is the shows premier offender of New Powers as the Plot Demands.
      • the next villain, Dartz, upped the ante even further with "Orichalcos Shunoros" which, because of the method it was summoned, had a whopping 20000 ATK points., although it lost ATK whenever it battled a monster. And then there is his "Divine Serpent Geh", which has INFINITE ATK points, but had no immunity to card effects, a powerful restricting effect, and would cause Dartz to automatically lose should it be destroyed. And then there was the Great Leviathan, an Eldritch Abomination, rather than a Duel Monster, so powerful the Egyptian Gods had to gang up on it outside the card game, and even then only barely won.
      • The same goes for the next and final villain, Zorc Necrophades. He too was an Eldritch Abomination rather than a playing card, and succesfully defeated the three Egyptian Gods (which not even The Great Leviathan could do) to start his rampage, and then went on to defeat Exodia and the Blue Eyes Ultimate Dragon/Dragon Master Knight without any issue.
      • The KC Grand Prix anime filler arc (which comes between Dartz and Zorc) plays with this with Zigfried and Leon:
      • Zigfried, the Arc Villain, has a powerful One-Turn Kill combo, but if that fails, it leaves him vulnerable, and all he can really do is stall until he can get an offense going again. However, he's also an expert hacker, which he uses to mess with Kaiba, his company, and his tournament.
      • Leon, is The Dragon and Final Boss, is a competent duelist with a deck filled with monsters with tricky effects. In addition, Ziegfried provides him with an illegal card that he hacked to be both playable and loaded with overpowered effects. However, the Final Boss is a Fair-Play Villain, and wanted no part in cheating, and would have thrown the match if it weren't for said overpowered effects preventing him from doing so, the card triggering a virus in Kaibacorp's systems, and Yugi's insistence to continue the duel anyway.
  • The opposition on Sailor Moon also sorted itself out into ascending levels of power per season, starting with the Dark Kingdom (which could only field a single youma at a time) all the way up to Galaxia, who threatened the entire universe. The only exceptions seem to be Ail and En who, regardless of probably being weaker than the last villains, had to face senshi with unusually strong attacks. Naturally this filler was forgotten later. It also seems to have been the original M.O. of the Amazon Trio, explaining their penchant for disguising themselves; likewise, there aren't real arc villains either. The strange thing is that the five Big Bads of the villain groups (Queen Metaria, Death Phantom, Pharaoh 90, Queen Nehellenia, and Chaos) are all portrayed as having the same dark power to destroy or conquer the universe which would mean they were at the same level of power. In the manga, it's because they're all the same villain being reincarnated over and over again.
    • Averted, in the final arc of the manga: the first opponent they meet is Galaxia herself, and the only reason she retreats and sends in her minions is that she needs Sailor Moon strong enough to match her and they'll be a good training while also serving to take out her allies, and she's more than willing to step back in if necessary for the latter job.
    • Codename: Sailor V, set before Sailor Moon and telling the story of Sailor Venus before she became part of the group appropriately has a big bad who though a threat to Sailor V is an extreme small fry in the scheme of things. He's one step below the first arc's Quirky Miniboss Squad being an underling of Kunzite. Codename: Sailor V debuted before Sailor Moon but wrapped up shortly after.
  • Naruto initially averts the algorithm by including fights between characters much stronger than the main heroes throughout the first part of the series. The first major enemy, Zabuza, is so strong that the Genin can't be expected to hold their own against him (even his Battle Butler, Haku, is too much for them). In addition, the Big Bad, Orochimaru, shows up in the second major arc, and for the longest time, even the strongest characters could, at best, manage a tie against him. However, this trope shows up more and more as the heroes gain strength until they're able to hang with the big boys on their own, and once Orochimaru is defeated, we are introduced to a number of major villains who are even stronger than him. Granted, one of the later antagonists is an internal one with more of a threat for his political influence than his physical power, and a number of major villains meet their defeats for reasons other than the heroes being stronger (Orochimaru himself was at his weakest when he was taken out), but even then, when a number of previous antagonists are resurrected during the Shinobi World War arc, most of them fall victim to this trope (with Nagato being the main exception). The trope plays out this way mostly because in part 1, the main characters are fresh out of ninja school and there are several more powerful adult shinobi around; as the heroes catch up to their elders after the Time Skip, this trope shows up more and more.
  • Largely averted by Hunter × Hunter. A notable secondary sometimes-friend-sometimes-foe character, Hisoka the Magician is introduced as one of the most dangerous men alive. Nearly three hundred chapters later (after a long hiatus), he's still one of the most dangerous men alive. The various enemies that the lead characters meet fluctuate wildly between "can kill them with a sneeze" to "wotta wimp!", with no real bearing on what point of the story they're at chronologically.
    • Also subverted with the Chimera Ant arc, while Phantom Troupe and the Greed Island enemies were strong threats, the Chimera Ants are very jagged in ranking, some were very weak and others are much stronger than even the Big Bad, their king prior to his death was the strongest character thus far.
  • Seems to actually be part of the dungeon ecosystem in Delicious in Dungeon, with powerful mid-level bosses preventing deep-level boss monsters from forcing lesser species further up and overrunning the easier levels.
  • In One Piece, this is mostly justified. The goal of the series is to reach a geographical destination that has been known but not yet reached for over 20 years, so a lot of pirates have gathered around it. Naturally, the strongest are the ones who have gotten the closest.
    • As Luffy and crew get further along the Grand Line, they discover tougher opponents. The series isn't above throwing the odd curveball though, like Mihawk first appearing and dominating Zoro very early in the series, and Bellamy showing up and going down like a punk after the defeat of Crocodile. In contrast to major arc villains, Eneru is a bit of a subversion in that he is the most powerful and dangerous opponent Luffy has actually defeated, his lightning powers giving him enough power to destroy entire islands and Nigh-Invulnerability, but the one thing that could make all of that power completely useless was being a Rubber Man, which Luffy is. Later on in the show's run, the Sabaody arc started with the Straw Hats dominating some lame pirates, then introduces nine pirate crews, some equal to the Straw Hats. It ends with the Straw Hats completely dominated again by some of the strongest characters introduced in One Piece up until now.
    • Subverted with the Marineford arc, with numerous high level Marines and pirates that are just too strong for Luffy. These include the Seven Warlords of the Sea like Doflamingo and Mihawk to the three Admirals and from the Vice Admirals to Sengoku. It's going to take time for the Straw Hats to overcome these opponents.
    • Also subverted by the Four Emperors. The first one we see is none other than Shanks, followed by Whitebeard. Then we hear about what Kaido did to Moria's old crew. And the first thing we see Big Mom do is eat one of her crewmates for no reason whatsoever and decimating islands for not giving her sweets.
    • It is played with, however, as each emperor to be shown on screen has been more evil than the last, going from Shanks (Nice Guy), to Whitebeard (Jerk with a Heart of Gold) to Blackbeard (Affably Evil to an extent), to Big Mom (Ax-Crazy, but also somewhat tragic), to Kaido (no redeeming qualities whatsoever). Bounty-wise, Blackbeard has the lowest, followed by Shanks, Big Mom, Kaido, and then Whitebeard. However, Roger had a higher bounty than all of them when he was alive, which is also the highest bounty for a pirate in recorded history.
    • Subverted with the Seven Warlords as well, as far as the original group goes. The first member introduced is the aforementioned Mihawk, and he is arguably the strongest member. He was followed by Crocodile, Doflamingo, and Kuma, who all prove to be heavy-hitters in their own right and of whom only Crocodile was beatable to the pre-Time Skip Straw Hats. Then came Moria, who was surprisingly weak (relatively speaking; he still proved to be a huge thorn in the Straw Hats' sides). The last two Warlords introduced were Hancock and Jinbe, who, while not quite as powerful as the first four, were stronger than Moria, and were by far the most moral members. They both ended up allying with Luffy (Hancock as a result of falling in love with him, Jinbe due to his prior friendship with Luffy's brother Ace), with Jinbe officially joining his crew during the Whole Cake Island arc.
  • Bleach:
    • Played straight through the first three major story arcs (Substitute Shinigami, Soul Society, and Arrancar).
      • In Substitute Shinigami, the Monsters Of The Week start out as ordinary, non-sentient Hollows but steadily grow more powerful and cunning, culminating in the Gillian Menos Grande at the end of Ishida's introduction story.
      • Ichigo's near-instantaneous defeat by Byakuya in the prelude to the Soul Society arc shows that the Shinigami up the ante as antagonists. On their way to rescue Rukia, Ichigo and Company fight their way up through the Gotei 13 hierarchy, from seated officers to captains with released bankai.
      • Once again, the increased threat level is indicated by Ichigo being handily defeated by Ulquiorra and Yammy's scouting party at the beginning of the Arrancar arc. When the battle begins in earnest, the Arrancar attack the protagonists in line with their power levels: Fraccion first, then Privaron Espada, then up through the ranked Espada, then finally the Co-Dragons Gin and Tousen, then (after 5 LONG years of publication time) the Big Bad Aizen himself.
    • Subverted in the Fullbringer Arc. Tsukishima and Ginjou are far less powerful than Aizen or even the Arrancar (on the level of Ichigo's early Soul Society Arc opponents) but make up for it by being much more manipulative at a time when Ichigo is especially ill-equipped to deal with their mindgames.
    • Consciously subverted by the Vandenreich in the Thousand Year Blood War Arc. Yhwach is a Combat Pragmatist who uses a Blitzkrieg strategy true to his Nazi motif, by sending his most powerful fighters in first to steamroller the Shinigami and using the rank-and-file to mop up after them.
  • Monster Rancher is complex: Pixie is the first of the Big Bad 4, but stronger than Gali and Greywolf — it takes the entire team sans Golem to beat Pixie, but only Moochi or Tiger to beat Gali and Greywolf. Then they meet Moo (the Big Bad) on the road quite early, and the encounter plays out like a Hopeless Boss Fight. Although it's played straight in a sense, since Naga is the strongest of the Big Bad 4, and after that it's Moo in his Dragon Body who is incredibly powerful. But is subverted again, because in the next series they're up against one of his captains, who is obviously much weaker than Moo was.
  • Averted in Rurouni Kenshin. The characters make a point of stating several times that the villain of the third arc, Enishi, while very powerful, is just not on the same level as the villain of the previous arc, Shishio. Enishi manages to make up the difference by striking while everyone's still recovering from the fight with Shishio, sending several of his henchmen to fight the heroes, using a style that seems specifically built to counter Kenshin's own, and fighting an extremely emotionally distraught Kenshin. In short, while Shishio would probably defeat Enishi, Enishi is in a much better position to defeat Kenshin.
    • Plus, some of the enemies are not as big of a threat; Inui Banjin gives Sanosuke a hard time, but once he's able to use Futae no Kiwami the battle ends rather promptly. This is contrasted with Anji, who traded blows with Sano despite the technique supposedly being a one hit kill.
  • D.Gray-Man would justify this, since the Akuma all have specific Levels... except that, as the heroes get stronger, they start fighting higher-leveled Akuma in larger groups. Partially justified as the Big Bad was relatively inactive in the beginning, and they only appear in large groups when he gathers them.
  • In Yu Yu Hakusho, every villain is billed as the most powerful, strongest, blah blah blah. This begins with several D-Class Demons early on and ends with the heroes fighting S-Class demons at the end of the series. Somewhat justified in that the Spirit World set up a powerful barrier that prevented powerful demons from entering the living world.
  • Saiyuki inverts this with its seasonal big bads. The first series has Homura, the God of War. Reload has Dr. Nii's disciple Kami-sama, and Gunlock features Hazel, a mere priest from the west. It also plays with the trope by making the villains harder to defeat in other ways - Homura was unquestionably a bad guy, but is followed by Psychopathic Manchild Kami-sama, who just didn't work on the same level mentally. Then there was Hazel, who was in all appearances a good guy, creating a huge ethical backlash to fighting him.
  • The classic example of the technology creep variety would be the Zeon mobile suits in Mobile Suit Gundam. They go from the rather pathetic Zaku which was designed for fighting conventional vehicles rather than other mobile suits, to the fast, heavily armed and armored, though somewhat unwieldy Dom to the powerful and agile Gelgoog, which nearly matches the Gundam's performance, with a few Ace customs and Super Prototypes along the way for flavor. This would be a fairly realistic setup... if the war had lasted longer than a single year. The novelization is somewhat better about this as the war drags on for two years and the Gelgoogs never show up. It also subverts this trope, as the antagonists use a slightly less advanced Mobile Armor to fight the Gundam in the climactic battle due to supply shortages and though the Gundam defeats it, it proves to be enough of a distraction that a Mauve Shirt piloting a lowly Rick Dom is able to finish Amuro off.
  • The entirety of battle in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is a combination of this and a Lensman Arms Race. The Anti-Spiral actually does explain, though, that he intentionally did it that way, the reasoning being that the harder the heroes have worked to get to where they are, the more crushing it'll be when they're finally defeated. That's, uh... not what happens.
  • Digimon uses a series of Evolutionary Levels: Baby, In-Training, Rookie, Champion, Ultimate, Mega. The team has to advance to the next level to face the next level of enemies. This gets a little ridiculous in later series, where every bad guy seems to be Mega level and some are just that much more powerful then other Megas.
    • Initially downplayed in Digimon V-Tamer 01 where the enemies went from adult/champion to perfect/ultimate to the then final level but it was explained partially by enemy and ally alike continuing to evolve while the protagonists were not and the big bad Demon had not gotten personally involved because he was winning. Then it went a step further and introduced Arkadimon, which was the "Super Ultimate" Digimon, a whole new level entirely. Among other things, it killed Sigma's Piedmon (a Mega level) while still at in-training level. In one hit. Its Champion level did the same to Seraphimon (a considerably stronger Mega) with about as much effort. In fairness to the Piedmon, he was already injured but until that point it was established in V-Tamer that a difference of more than one level was an insurmountable hurdle.
    • The Digimon Adventure has Devimon, an evil Champion-level Digimon. Then there was Etemon, who was purely comical as opposed to the serious Devimon, but was at the Ultimate level and thus considerably stronger. Then came Myotismon, an Ultimate of great strength who was the first Digimon in the show to evolve to Mega form. Then came the four Dark Masters, who were all Mega level. The last, most powerful enemy they faced, was Apocalymon, an insanely-strong Mega level, who beat the digidestined at first, but was defeated in the Grand Finale by Deus ex Machina. Explained by the Dark Masters: they were heading up a mountain, through each of the Dark Masters' turfs one at a time and the Dark Masters rarely interfered in one another's matters. The four got progressively tougher the further up the mountain they got, the most powerful Piedmon reigning from the very top.
    • Also, in Digimon Tamers, the first several Digimon to appear are all Rookie or Champion level, and are easily beaten by the Rookie level Digimon used by the protagonists, that quite quickly unlock Champion level. Later, the Devas appear and nearly force them to unlock Ultimate level, after which they wind up in the Digital World and learn of the D-Reaper, which eventually results in the good guys unlocking Biomerge Digivolution. In the end, it all came down to 4 Megas against one Mega. Guess who kicked ass for most of the fight.
    • Digimon Savers averts this, in that the first major "villain" they encounter is of the Mega level. Then, however, it turns out that he's not actually a bad guy, and the main antagonist becomes Gotsumon (a Rookie level digimon), the human-hating minion of the aforementioned bad guy. He ends up manipulating another Mega level digimon into attacking the humans, and then it's revealed that everything bad and the reason why Digimon distrust humans is due to the actions of Dr. Akihiro Kurata - a human. Later, it appears that Kurata is going to be usurped by Belphemon, Kurata instead fuses with it and remains in control of it until his defeat. Yggdrasil rounds out the series as the penultimate antagonist, but considering his actions are due to Kurata's own misdeeds, Kurata still remains the main villain of the series.
  • Magic Knight Rayearth. The first enemy the Power Trio faces, Alcyone, is a powerful Ice Mage but easily dispatched. Then come Ascot, Caldina, Lafarga and, finally, Zagato himself. While their power levels are all over the place, they have specific skills that make them increasingly dangerous, and it would have been easy for any of the later foes to eliminate the Knights had they been dispatched earlier. In particular, one wonders why, since Zagato knew all about the Magic Knight legend, why he didn't go after the girls himself as soon as they arrived. In the anime, Zagato does show up for a few moments to show the heroes just a tiny portion of his power. Had he actually attacked them, they would not have survived. What Zagato wants to do Other than keeping his beloved Princess alive is never fully explained. He may not intend to kill the Magic Knights, regardless of what that will mean for him. The Ascot arc shows the trope in miniature: the first few "friends" are indeed strong enough to squish the Magic Knights into paste, but they have glaring weaknesses that the girls discover and exploit within minutes. However, his very last Summoned Monsters are titanic foes that can go toe-to-toe with the ancient Rune Gods, and continue to be powerful presences in the second arc whenever the Knights need rescuing. He always had access to them, so why he didn't call these right off the bat is a mystery to everyone.
  • Code Geass. Lelouch faces off with increasingly improving resistance from The Empire, but manages to cope because his allies also get better mechas over time. In the first major battle, he faces inept commander Prince Clovis and a bunch of regular Knightmares with his terrorist allies using mostly outdated Knightmares of their own, and they own the field... And then Suzaku shows up... Algorithm leaps somewhat later when Lelouch tries to do this again against much better leader Princess Cornelia, and his (different group) allies are slaughtered. He later however turns the tables when he tries this again, only using the environment to his advantage, supported by the JLF, and with Ace Pilot Kallen in a better mecha. He nearly has Cornelia beat... And then Suzaku shows up... again. Eventually his allies begin to power up faster than The Empire, and he's likely have won the war, if not for some extreme circumstances and misfortunes. Eventually Kallen's able to easily turn Suzaku's mech to scrap, even after it gets an upgrade. By the end of the series however, his terrorist army has gotten so good, that when he's forced to fight them, this time commanding the forces of The Empire, he's no match. Unfortunately the trope is subverted in R2, where Lelouch deals with the immortal V.V. (the target of his vendetta), The Emperor, and Schneizel when everyone thought it was going to be the other way around. Even worse, The Emperor kills V.V. before Lelouch even learns that V.V. was the one who killed his mother.
  • Played straight then subverted in History's Strongest Disciple Kenichi, in the manga at least. The storyline covered in the anime plays it straight, with Kenichi fighting stronger opponents as his skill improves; high school bullies, Ragnarok mooks, the Eight Fists of Ragnarok, and finally their leader Odin. Kenichi's struggle against YOMI, the next antagonist group subverts it. YOMI's leader Sho Kanou, touted as the strongest fighter of them all and inheritor of the styles of YAMI the series' Big Bad organization... is the second YOMI member Kenichi defeats. However Kenichi then gets his ass handed to him against another member of YOMI. Possibly justified since each of the YOMI members and their masters in YAMI believes that he or she is really the strongest; some of the YAMI members believed that Sho was unsuitable to be YOMI leader. That and Kenichi's fighting ability is highly dependent on the circumstances involved; even though he's practically superhuman at this point he's still slightly intimidated by high school bullies.
  • Eyeshield 21 and other such sports manga tend to increase in scope as the story goes on. Athletes face opponents from other cities first and other countries later. Played straight and subverted earlier in the manga, where the Devil Bats' first opponents are a very weak team, followed immediately by the uber-talented and powerful Ojou White Knights, then the moderately challenging but not all that Zokugaku Chameleons. But, naturally, once they get to the fall tournament, the easy games all happen first. It is a knock-out tourney so only the best get far. Subverted again in the Kanto tournament, where the match-ups are decided through a lottery. They do not go against the nine-times-in-a-row-champions Shinryuuji Naga in the finals, or in the semi-finals, but in their very first match. They then face their ultimate rivals, the White Knights in their second match, and fellow darkhorse team, the Hakushuu Dinosaurs in the final. All are very close, very tough matches, and which one was the best is a matter of debate among the fandom.
  • JoJo's Bizarre Adventure both plays this trope straight and averts it. While the enemies fought in each series grow stronger the closer that you get to the end, the fact that each volume stars a different hero means that Big Bads don't necessarily have to be stronger than what came before. For example, while Dio Brando of Part 3 was quite dangerous, he wasn't as immediate a threat to the world as the Pillar Men of Part 2.
    • This is arguable considering what his true master plan was revealed to be in part 6, which is to make a Perfect World for Dio. And although orchestrated by one of his minions and the Part 6 Big Bad Enrico Pucci, it was still a large threat either on par or greater than the Pillar Men. Especially since the Perfect World would not only have to remove the Joestar family, which are Dio's biggest threat, but also anyone who would ever pose a threat to Dio, including the Pillar Men and the Part 5 Big Bad Diavolo.
    • Given that above point, the only time it's really been subverted (without getting into technicalities) is with Yoshikage Kira from Part 4. Although to be fair Part 4 is about simply protecting one town over protecting the world. He was merely one Serial Killer as opposed to a vampire or a mob boss.
      • While Kira most certainly did not have as much ambition or ressources as any of the other Big Bads, he won the Superpower Lottery so handily that he was just as hard to beat as he should given his place in the series.
    • Played straight in-between Part 1 and 2. In Part 1, vampire Dio was the big threat of the series, with vampire zombies serving as the series' mooks. Come Part 2, vampire zombies have disappeared and vampires are downgraded to Mook status to make way for the Pillar Men. It helps that Jonathan, the first JoJo, had to learn Hamon to stand a chance against Dio, while his grandson Joseph, the second JoJo, was apparently born with the skills to use Hamon and his arc was learning to control it better.
  • Saint Seiya: By Law of Chromatic Superiority, the heroes must first battle their peers, the Bronze Saints (and, later, their Evil Counterpart Black Saints) in a local skirmish for the Gold Cloth; then, the Silver Saints, who hunt them down for said Cloth; and finally, the Gold Saints, who never leave the Sanctuary. Then come the Asgardian God Warriors, who can give Golds a run for their money; Marine Shoguns, likewise; and then Hades' Spectres. The last foes they encounter are actual Gods, and the teaser movie for Chapter of Heaven hints that the Bronze Boys are raring to take on the Olympian Gods themselves. Subverted in the manga when Gold Saint Virgo Shaka seeks out and nearly kills Bronze Saint Phoenix Ikki before the actual plot even begins. Their battle, such as it is, is shown as an extended flashback.
    • Also Subverted for Seiya: the first foe he fights is Cassios, a candidate Bronze Saint, but the second is Shaina, the strongest and sadistic Silver Saint available, and he only survives because, following the code, she had left behind her Cloth as it was a personal matter, and thus wasn't sure of winning once he managed to make use of his (plus other personal reasons); in the anime Seiya has another run-in with her before the Silver Saints are deployed and, as this time she's on official business and thus is wearing her Cloth, she almost kills him; and when the Silver Saints are deployed, the first one to come out is almost as strong as Shaina and much saner, and give Seiya the hardest non-Shaina fight until the Gold Saints.
    • Averted in its prequel Saint Seiya: The Lost Canvas. The difficulty of the enemies varies ranging from simply strong Specters, the three Judges, to Thanatos/Hypnos, but a good deal of energy is put forth into defeating Thanatos/Hypnos before even finishing off the Judges; and many rankless strong Specters actually served as obstacles for the last arc, outlasting both the Dragons and Mini-bosses.
  • Played with in Mahou Sensei Negima!, where the first major antagonist that Negi faced -Evangeline - is the strongest character in the series, only winning the fight by a combination of luck and the fact that Eva wasn't really taking the fight seriously/more or less let him win. Played with because part of Eva's curse was still in effect, and when he first fights her without it, he can barely last three minutes.
  • This trope is straight out mocked in the second episode of Haruhi-chan. After being 'defeated', Asakura warns Kyon and Yuki that she is "the weakest of the radical four", which will now come after them. And above the radical four, are the top three leaders..!
  • Played straight for most of Fist of the North Star. Shin, Ken's initial rival and the man who engraved the seven scars on his chest, isn't even the strongest of the Nanto Seiken masters, but rather Souther, a character who is introduced a bit later and is shown to be immune to the effects of Ken's martial art at first. Jagi, the first of Ken's adoptive brothers to appear in the story, is a petty thug who never truly mastered Hokuto Shinken, but is still stronger than the average mook, in contrast to Raoh, the eldest and the last one to appear, who is the Big Bad for most of the first series and ends up killing most of Ken's allies. Then there's Kaioh, the ultimate Big Bad of the second series, who was the only villain that was actually immune to Kenshiro's ultimate technique of Musou Tensei and almost killed him during their first encounter. Subverted in the final chapters of the manga, in which the final villain, Bolge, was just an average wasteland thug far weaker than Shin or Jagi, and was only a threat due Kenshiro having lost his memories and fighting abilities.
  • In Buso Renkin, the series begins with the main characters fighting off animal- and plant-type homunculi. Then comes along a stronger animal-type homunculus, and then the humanoid homunculi, and then Victor, and then Victor AND the Alchemist Army, and then Victor in his third stage...
  • Star Blazers / Space Battleship Yamato. Initially, Dessler does not consider the Star Force a serious threat, and orders low-ranking shlubs Ganz and Bane to fight them. After Ganz and Bane's defeat, Dessler takes the threat more seriously and sends his best general, Lysis to fight them. After they defeat Lysis, then Dessler decides to take them on personally.
    • In the second season, first the Star Force fights some weak Comet Empire lackeys while Dessler's hanging out at the Comet Empire, then they fight Desslok who almost defeats them but is tricked to run away, then a tank battalion that almost destroys the Space Marines, then they fight Desslok again except this time he's ENRAGED, then they take on the Comet Empire, then the dreadnought inside the Comet Empire.
    • In the third season, Dessler's buddy-buddy with the Star Force. His generals do not understand this and keep throwing more and more power to capture the Star Force without telling him. He is not amused when he finds out.
  • While threat level varies in Fairy Tail the threat and strength of the more serious villains does increase each time, with lesser villains thrown in between them. This is mostly managed by the characters getting by on strategy, nakama power, of in some cases temporary power ups rather than non-stop training.
    • Threats thus far are a ordinary dark guild wielding a fairly weak soul sucking demon, a rival turned evil who is on par with one of the main characters and wanted to unseal a similar demon, a rival guild who's master is on par with the Big Good who was trying to put Fairy Tail out of business, An old friend turned evil who was on par with the Big Good and wanted to revive Zeref (this is when all threats start to guarantee death), One of the larger dark guilds who wanted to start a guild war, a foreign king who had no powers beyond a Humongous Mecha who was willing to kill the guild for their magic, then a former guild member and his new, serious dark guild who easily CurbStomped the Big Good and were trying to create a world where only 10% of the population could survive. Then there's also the Black Dragon of the Apocalypse who the entire main and supporting cast can't put a scratch on and only leaves once it assumes they're dead. The most recent arc seems to be toning it back down with a government official who only wants one guild member, supposedly for the sake of the country at the cost of her life, except it turns out that was a Red Herring and the true threat is one of the current dragonslayers from the future with seven dragons that can curbstomp most of the mages at the place, and even the dragonslayers are hard-pressed to hurt them. It gets toned back down when the next arc involves at worst a fairly average demon and another rival turned evil (though she was pretty nasty even before that), but it sets up the events for the final dark guild filled with genocidal demons who want to erase all the magic in the continent, all for the purpose of reviving their leader, who, from the words and actions of other characters in the know, is a demon on par with both Zeref and the previously-mentioned Black Dragon. The 2nd Time-Skip also has format to it's villains. Orochi's Fin is only a problem for it's rival guild Lamia Scale as Natsu with his off-screen training takes down it's legions of monsters with ease. A black magic cult Avatar seems to be just as weak until Natsu sees Gray Fullbuster working with the cult until it's revealed to be a ploy to expose Avatar. An entire country that wants to invade Ishgar for the Lumen Histoire, has a Praetorian Guard with members on par with God Serena , who defected for unknown reasons and is led by some dude named Spriggan which is another name for Zeref, and finally the previously mentioned Black Dragon who is opposed to everyone else and wants to kill all the remaining dragon slayers.
    • It gets played straight with the Balam Alliance, though. You first have Oracion Seis as the weakest with both the fewest members and the most sympathetic villains aside from their Guild Master, then Grimoire Heart which is led by the Big Good 's mentor, and finally, Tartaros, a completely genocidal guild comprised entirely of Zeref's demons and led by the very same and previously mentioned demon that once gave Igneel a hard ass-kicking. Keep in mind that non-Dragon Slaying magic does jack squat against dragons in the series.
  • Somewhat averted in The Prince of Tennis. Many of the earlier rivals are good enough to keep up with Seigaku throughout the manga. Fudomine and Yamabuki, who are faced in the District and Prefectural Tournament respectively on, make it all the way to the nationals. Seigaku's arch rival Hyotei is faced in the very first Kanto Tournament Match. However, they prove to be Seigaku's strongest opponents after Rikkai and get faced again. Later opponents such as Shitenhouji have good players, but are defeated relatively easily compared to the "two loss three win" formula against Hyotei and Rikkaidai.
  • Bakugan plays this straight.
    • S1: Naga, an egomaniac Bakugan whose plot is to absorb the power of the core of the Bakugan homeworld and conquer the universe.
    • S2: King Zenoheld and the Vexos. Zenoheld rules a planet and finally goes Ax-Crazy and tries to destroy the universe, creating a Bakugan actually capable of doing so. Despite being strong enough to beat Naga, they've got to get a few upgrades to be able to beat them.
    • S3: Emperor Barodius and the Gundalians. Are already on the winning side of a war with a peaceful planet and decides to invade Earth for kicks. Once again, the power that was able to defeat Zenoheld isn't enough to beat his forces and more upgrades are needed.
    • S4: Mag Mel has yet to show his actual power, but considering he's Sealed Evil in a Can that was imprisoned for actually committing genocide, it's a safe bet.
      • Now that he has, it's been confirmed, with still more upgrades needed to face his strongest forces although technically he could simply be considered the same Big Bad but with new tricks, as he's actually what Barodius became after his defeat...
    • Finally, Coredegon is so powerful that damn near nothing can scratch him (he boasts that he doesn’t have a weak point), is smart enough to subvert Transformation Is a Free Action and actually requires a Reset Button and intervention from the show’s Greater-Scope Paragon to put down for good. The only reason he has minions is because he gets rendered Only Mostly Dead along with his fellow Combining Mecha components and needs them to resurrect him.
  • Played a bit with in Slayers. The first major enemy Lina fights is the Nigh-Invulnerable Rezo the Red Priest, who happens to have a fragment of the world's Demon God sealed inside of him. Said Demon God is the most powerful of all evil creatures in the world, so, that's it right? Nothing can challenge Lina? Wrong. Oh, so wrong. The next major enemy Lina fights (in the anime) is a creature that's IMMUNE to magic attacks and has to be taken down in a rather unusual way. The next season has the Demon God's underlings show up and be enemies. Surely they can't be as powerful, right? Wrong. Even though they are less powerful than the Demon God at full power, the underlings are stronger than the fragment that Lina fought against in the first season. In the novels, the Big Bad of season 2 manages to freaking TANK the incomplete Giga Slave and managed to fight The Lord of Nightmares to a draw, though that was justified in that the Lord of Nightmares was in Lina's body and did not have access to her full power. Season 3 had a combined Demon God and God fusion from another world that needed a specific kind of spell to take him out. Season 4 had the same immune to magic enemy from season 1, though this one had no human controlling him, thus was actually stronger. Season 5 brought back the Demon God fragment from season 1, but this one had more control over the human host and was able to use more of his power. If said Demon God from Season 1 had been at full power, that is, completely consumed the human host, Lina would not be able to kill him.
  • Holyland: The first enemies Yuu fights are usually generic punks who know a bit of streetfighting. He starts coming up against more experienced fighters with genuine training in various disciplines. Eventually, he has to face prodigies and pros in combat-tested styles like kickboxing and Mixed Martial Arts.
  • Muteki Kanban Musume, being a Deconstructive Parody of the Fighting Series, Inverts and subverts this trope because the opponents are not presented in order of menace to Miki, but in order of their Character Alignment: First we know Tough Love / Abusive Parent Miki’s mother, then Bitch in Sheep's Clothing The Rival Megumi, later Unknown Rival Idiot Hero Kankuro, finishing with Worthy Opponent Angry Guard Dog Toshiyuki, the only one of them who is not an Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy.
  • Medaka Box: Played Straight with most of the antagonists. Medaka and her friends face an escalating threat of enemies from a justice-driven Creepy Child, a megalomaniacal Mind Control abnormal, her Reality Warper Arch-Enemy, and a Physical God.
    • It is briefly averted in the Jet Black Wedding Arc, where the suitors, despite their powerful abilities called Styles are nowhere near the level of Ajimu, the aforementioned Physical God or Kumagawa.
    • Played Straight in the final arc with Iihiko, who not only defeated Ajimu numerous times in the past, but is completely immune to abnormal or minus skills. Only the aforementioned styles provide a potential way to defeat him.
  • Each of the Zoids manga/anime has its own sorting algorithm of evil.
    • In Zoids: Chaotic Century, it goes in order of Saber Tiger to Geno Saurer to Death Stinger to Berserk Fury, with minor antagonists sprinkled inbetween.
    • In the anime, it went Saber Tiger, Geno Saurer, Death Saurer, Geno Breaker, Death Stinger, and Ultimate Death Saurer.
    • Zoids: New Century gave us the Elephander, and then the Berserk Fury, with lesser antagonists sprinkled inbetween.
    • Zoids: Fuzors went in order of the Buster Fury, Matrix Dragon, Energy Liger, Gairyuki and Seismosaurus as its primary antagonists.
    • Zoids: Genesis started off with the Bio Megaraptor, then the Bio Tricera, Bio Volcano and Bio Tyranno.
  • A Certain Magical Index is rather guilty of this. While not every villain is more powerful than the last, the Big Bads have become successively more powerful, to the point that currently there are multiple characters who are stronger than God.
  • Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro both demonstrates and subverts this trope. While the important bosses continue to increase in difficulty, the entire series takes place while the titular character continues to grow weaker. It is shown later in the series that two characters of similar strength, fighting at different times, have different levels of difficulty.
  • Played with in Kill la Kill, in which the Elite Four set up a series of battles for Ryuko based on the number of people they took out in the "student election" (a battle royale), in order from least to greatest. In theory, this would result in this trope... however, Gamagoori, who suggested the system, actually gamed it by deliberately fighting as few people as possible, hoping to take Ryuko out by himself. Consequently, even though he's fought first, he's not at all the weakest.
  • By design or happenstance, the characters in both Sword Art Online and Log Horizon have a Diegetic Interface that displays information about friends and enemies as befits their MMORPG game elements. Log Horizon is The Game Come to Life while the initial story of Sword Art Online is Win to Exit, making game information to beat a foe crucial to stories in both plots.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion - as is its custom - deconstructs the scale. As the premise of the show sits atop an existential crisis, what is good and evil is subject to discovery; so, rather than idealize the heroes and villainize the villains, the hostile Angels consecutively lay siege to NERV HQ via ascending methods of potency and cruelty - remembering that menace, rather than strength, is the unit of measure on the Sliding Scale. Basically, the Angels assault their opponent pilots in increasing increments of traumatic attacks that perfectly fit the most prominent flaws of each hero at the time of the conflict. The latter Angels seamlessly match their psychological attacks with a physical presence that successfully exploits the gap made in the AT-Field of the pilot under attack. The final Angel in the TV series - Tabris - marvelously seals the dual-pointed conflict with physical and ethereal enemies by being the strongest Angel in terms of physical affectivity and also the most sympathetic as Kaworu, thinking for himself, decides that Shinji destroying him is the right outcome of their conflict and so encourages and enables him. After Shinji defeats Tabris and crosses the line he never intended to cross, the series brings the protagonist to the most important moment of his life. We are given two endings as resolutions, though the show's creators insist that whichever ending you pick - even both or neither - is the right ending for you.
  • Tiger Mask manages to both play this straight and avert it:
    • It's played straight in his conflict with Tiger's Cave, as the enemy organization holds back at first. The sequence is: Black Python, less talented but more experienced wrestler than Tiger Mask; Gorilla Man, the single strongest character in the series in terms of raw strength but with no technique at all; a group of five talented but unexperienced wrestlers and three trainers, using some of the most unbelievable fouls of the series (the trainees used a vynil costume with a cannonball in the head, a costume with steel fangs and needles that inject a paralitic substance, a rather nasty trick that allowed two of them to attack together, and an armoured mask with a powered bite that could tear an arm off, while one of the trainers had sleeping powder in his costume and their boss was just freakishly strong); Red Death Mask, their Hero Killer; Mr. Kamikaze, the champion of their underground fighting ring (as Tiger Mask went to their underground fighting ring first, he had to deal with the Nigh-Invulnerable Mapman and King of the Jungle with his trained cobra before dealing with Kamikaze), not as foulish as his fellow Tiger's Cave wrestlers but a lot stronger than even Red Death Mask; Miracle 3, a wrestler that excelled in excellent technique, overwhelming strength and cruel fouls (something impossible: an excellent technician would need to be too skinny to be incredibly strong, a formidable strongman would have muscles that slow him down too much to use fine technique in combat, and if someone somehow managed to achieve both excellent technique and superhuman strength he just wouldn't have had the time to learn the fouls), actually three guys with the same costume and body build, one of which excelling in technique, one excelling in strength and one excelling in fouls; and as the grand finale they use the fake Tiger Mask (strong but not as fearsome as Miracle 3) to lure him in a tournament with the most cruel heel wrestlers in the world;
    • Averted outside Tiger's Cave, as many wrestlers he dealt with early on remained powerful opponents even later, when Tiger Mask had become both stronger and more skilled with legal techniques, and in fact his worst opponents in Tiger's Cave tournament are Dick the Bruiser and Killer Kowalski, who had been some of his early opponents and in this ruleless tournament could finally show what they could really do. Some, on the other hand, suffered The Worf Effect.
  • Deconstructed in Goblin Slayer. The Goblins are the weakest sapient villains in the setting, but are far more dangerous than that would suggest and often fatally underestimated, especially by the rookie adventures who most often deal with them. Goblins are smart enough to know they're weakness and use all manner of methods to even the odds (including attacking in numbers, terrain familiarity, faking death, faking pliability). What Goblins do, especially to females, makes them just as dangerous and reprehensible as the more powerful villains. Goblins are oft overlooked by experienced adventures as unglamorous or not worth the minuscule reward (as their weakness oft limits them to attacking small locals that can't afford better), leaving them to rookie adventures who often find themselves out of their league. This give Goblins experience, equipment to salvage, and them means to grow their number, enabling them to become greater threats. Even the powerful, experience heroine Sword Maiden fell victim to them by being carless and unlucky, an ordeal made worse as her thinking no-one would believe of accept such happening to her meant she never got the help she needed for her trauma. A Central Theme of the series is that this trope, heroes saving the day from increasingly powerful villains, is only possible because Goblin Slayer was doing the unceremonious task of keeping the lesser ones from destroying everything or becoming powerful while said heroes are busy.

    Comic Books 
  • 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.
  • Batman: Year One reintroduces The Detective as being principally concerned with cleaning up Gotham City's mobster problem; its nominal sequels such as The Man Who Laughs, The Long Halloween and Dark Victory concern the gradual emergence and rise of the supervillain threat, and by the end of Halloween and Victory nearly all the principal mobsters are either incarcerated or dead, and the supervillains have taken over. Afterwards, though, this trope is zig-zagged and subverted since, while Batman does deal with global, even genocidal villains as his career moves on, and as part of the Justice League takes on intergalactic menaces and otherworldly threats, those same supervillains still pose as much or even more trouble for him as they ever have, though under Grant Morrison there was / is a tendency to make the city-based threats part of larger international conspiracies, to the point where prior to the lastest Cosmic Retcon Batman had decided to start his own multinational crimefighting franchise to tackle crime everywhere.
  • A subtle example occurs in Spider-Girl with the villains Earthshaker, Mr. Abnormal, and Killerwatt. All three of them were defeated by Spider-Girl early in the first series, and don't reappear for several years real-time. When they finally reappear, they've been drafted to serve in a government super-team, but do a pretty poor job of it. While they were credible threats to Spider-Girl early in her career, their ineffectiveness is now lampshaded by everyone from Carnage to Agent Maria Hill of S.H.I.E.L.D. to Spider-Girl herself.
  • Warren Ellis' run on The Authority consisted to 3 four-issue storylines. In the 1st, they fight a supervillain. In the 2nd, they fight an alternative Earth. And in the 3rd they fight what could be described as God. When Mark Millar then took over the writing, he went back to various kinds of supervillains again.
  • Averted in Les Légendaires; the first pages of book 1 reveal that the protagonists have already defeated their Arch-Enemy Darkhell before the story even begins for the reader. He comes back... 2 volumes later, and he remained the biggest treat they had to face for 7 books, to the point the Greater-Scope Villain had to be a God of Evil in order to actually overshadow him.
  • During his tenure as the writer for The Avengers, Jim Shooter pitted the team against a series of progressively more powerful and more dangerous opponents, all of whom had powers that bordered on invincibility. They faced the genetically enhanced Atlantean Tyrak (who had superhuman strength), the robot Ultron (who was equipped with an "encephalo-ray" which could place his enemies in a death-like state and possessed an indestructible adamantium body), the mad scientist Graviton (who had the ability to control one of the fundamental forces of the universe), Count Nefaria (a Flying Brick), and eventually Korvac (a would-be warlord from the 31st century who had obtained godlike powers by absorbing part of the Power Cosmic from Galactus's abandoned starship). The first four typically took down Thor and Wonder Man (the strongest members of the team) with a single attack, while Korvac actually managed to kill the entire team in battle before being driven to despair by the apparent betrayal of his similarly cosmically-empowered wife and restoring the team to life with his final breath.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Fan Works 

    Films — Animated 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Subtly toyed with in Point Blank — the hero keeps killing his way up the chain of command without truly getting anywhere.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Karate Kid series has a pattern in which he must use a new technique that the previous final boss proves immune to, thus suggesting that each opponent is tougher than the previous.
  • Each of the Terminator sequels introduced a more advanced Terminator model as the antagonist. There are plot reasons for this, since Skynet is sending Terminators back into the past from increasingly later points in the future, thus the models are stronger than the previous ones.
    • The T-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.
  • 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.
  • Subverted in 300. After his first wave of Mooks fails, God-King Xerxes sends his best troops, the Immortals, to kill the Spartans. While the Immortals make quite a few casualties among the Spartans, it ultimately fails because, as the narrator claims, the Spartans were not yet weakened by fatigue.
  • The Dark Knight 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 attack the stock market. Very quickly, Bane is shown to be a huge threat, especially when he defeats Batman and traps him in a prison halfway around the world. After that, Bane forcibly takes over Gotham for months, and is secretly working with Talia al Ghul. Both want revenge for Ra's death, and want it by nuking Gotham.
  • 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.
  • Used briefly in the first Gamera series. In Gamera vs. Gyaos, Gamera takes the entire film to kill Gyaos. Then, for Gamera vs. Guiron, Guiron is introduced as he's effortlessly killing a Space Gyaos. This wasn't entirely intentional on the filmmaker's part, as they'd originally intended for Space Gyaos' role to be filled by a completely different, new kaiju—they only reused the Gyaos costume because they couldn't make the new monster in time.
  • The opposition in Legion gets increasingly stronger: Old lady > an ice cream man (bummer) > about 100 angels > another 500 angels > an uber angel.
  • Justified in Pacific Rim. The first Kaiju to arrive on Earth are scouts sent to cause as much mayhem as possible. Once humanity began to show resistance, the Precursors responded by sending more advanced and larger Kaiju to deal with the Jaegers. And once the plan of wiping out all Jaegers succeeded, an extermination wave of deadly Kaiju would come to destroy humanity once and for all.
  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series is blatant aversion of this trope.
  • A literary example comes from the Lensman series of novels, which worked up from interplanetary gangsters to an evil older than the formation of the solar system whose goal was domination of all intelligent life in the universe. These books justified the algorithm by revealing in each book that the Big Bad of this book was The Man Behind the Man of last book's Big Bad. Then again, the nesting that would be present in the beginning is somewhat mind-boggling. note 
  • 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.
  • Advertising copy for The Ghost King, R.A. Salvatore's 2009 Drizzt novel: "When the Spellplague ravages Faerun, Catti-brie falls into a deathlike trance, taking Regis with her. Drizzt, with the most unlikely ally of all at his side, seeks the help of Cadderly — the hero of the recently reissued series The Cleric Quintet. But even as his beloved's life hangs by a thread, Drizzt finds himself facing his most powerful and elusive foe, the twisted Crenshinibon, the demonic Crystal Shard he believed had been destroyed years ago. And the dragon he thought was destroyed along with it. And the mind flayer. And the seven liches that created the Crystal Shard in the first place. All in one godlike entity that calls itself the Ghost King." To calibrate the algorithm, it is the last book in R.A. Salvatore's eighth Forgotten Realms series. But then, Drizzt is a D&D hero, with complete stats - and quite strong enough to face a squid thingy and a dragon and a group of liches.
  • Intially played straight in the The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, but later Averted. After fighting an evil wizard with more ambition and enjoyment for kicking puppies than actual power or brains in the 1st book, Harry Dresden fights werewolves, ghosts, vampires and the faerie queens by the 4th book... and back down to vampires in the 6th. While there's plenty of fighting and Harry and the other protagonists are powerful in their own ways, the drama generally comes from scheming and Harry's personal stake in the matter. The faeries in Proven Guilty would have been no problem for Harry even back in book 1, but the problem was that now he had to handle the person who summoned them as well.
    • Also, the most dangerous antagonists are not always the ones with the greatest raw power. Villains like Nicodemus and Mavra are significant threats not because of their admittedly considerable powers, but because they are cunning, patient, and pragmatic. Tactics and Flaw Exploitation win out over brute force more often than not.
    • 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.
  • In the Codex Alera also by Jim Butcher, the Vord have this as a superpower, which when coupled with the raw intellect of their Queens is just as scary as it sounds. Even though the Vord are defeated in the early books, this just taught the Queen new tricks to use to modify future generations of her children, so that when they come back they're far more formidable. The only way to stop the Vord for good without this happening seems to be to kill the Queen.
    • Also played generally straight in Alera with the three successive invading forces. The Marat are Proud Warrior Race Guy barbarian elves who are very individually formidable but don't really have the logistics to take and hold much of Alera; it also turns out that it's mostly one particularly bloodthirsty leader who wants them fighting Alera in the first place, and once he's removed other leaders are willing to talk things out. Next, the Canim are highly disciplined, technologically advanced wolfmen who succeed in waging a prolonged war along the Aleran coast- at least until it turns out they're only there to try and escape from the even more formidable enemy that assaulted their homeland, which turns out to be the Vord, mentioned above, who nearly destroy the world.
  • Generally averted in J. R. R. Tolkien's works- the supernatural powers of evil tend to get weaker, not stronger, as the timeline advances. The supernatural powers of good also get weaker, however (or at least less accessible) in accord with the general transition of Middle-Earth from a mythological world to a more realistic one. If you start with The Hobbit and then go to The Lord of the Rings, however, it's played straight, going from the Big Bad being a dragon (dangerous on his own to be sure, but lacking minions or the ambition to range far from home without proper incentive) to an Evil Overlord with world-conquering ambition.
    • Although at the very end of The Lord of the Rings, the heroes have to face one last battle: a handful of bandits in the Shire. After the climax and death of Sauron, this seems comparatively petty.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

    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 series' Overarching Villain, 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 mind sof 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.
  • 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 does this with their season finales. In Series 1, a far future Earth is invaded by Daleks. In the second, present day Earth is invaded first by Cyberman and then by the Daleks. In Series 3, the Master's invasion of modern day Earth turns it into a dystopian wasteland. In Series 4, Davros threatens the disintegration of all universes in all of reality. 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 .
  • 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.
  • 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 
  • 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.
  • Played straight in Baldur's Gate. Your character is targeted by assassins. It starts with some mooks who pose no threat to even a 1st level character, then a moderately powerful spellcaster note  And so on, until you finally meet the godlike Big Bad himself and easily dispatch him with all the loot and experience you've taken from his minions. The reward for killing you grows over time, attracting higher-level assassins. Also averted: the games allow you to wander wherever you want, and some of the starting areas are directly adjacent to areas with creatures that can kill low-level characters in one shot. It's also averted in the very beginning. The Big Bad hunts you down personally and your foster father pulls a You Shall Not Pass! Heroic Sacrifice to give you the chance to escape.
  • 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.
  • 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 Gang Bangers 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.
  • 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:
    • Subverted in The Force Unleashed: Kazdan Paratus is far harder to kill when compared to the next Boss character: Shaak Ti.
    • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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 you make, you're only proving your 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 destructive units like Andromedons and Sectopods.
    • Justified once again in XCOM: Chimera Squad: The villains simply didn't forget to level grind, and have been busy when you were dealing with the other organizations.
  • Downplayed in Xenoblade. The mechon mostly follow this, but the enemies found in the overworld can be many levels higher than you, for example level 35 enemies that can be found in the starting area and will all join in to kill you if you try to attack one.
  • 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 hanging out 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 most recently, 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're 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 Bam starts out as a beginning Regular and starts working his way up with numerous companions. Since Bam 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 on 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-in 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 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 that shows 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 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 pissy 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 manages to warp the entire country to his liking. The biggest bad of the series ultimately turns out to be an asteroid.
  • Surprisingly, The Fairly OddParents... Timmy first starts off having to deal with mean babysitters and school bullies, eventually upgraded to his crazy fairy-hunting teacher. Now he routinely has to deal with the Evil Plan-loving Pixies and Anti-Fairies who seem to be content with nothing less than the total domination and remaking of both Earth and the magical world. This reflects his getting deeper into the world of magic, where the stakes are higher: later on there is The Darkness, which is a threat to the normal galaxy and the magical universe. Timmy is thrown right in the midst of it.
  • Played straight with the epic multi-parters on Gargoyles. "Awakening" had Demona and Xanatos, who are certainly dangerous enemies but weren't really trying to do anything beyond controlling Goliath and his clan for use in their future schemes. In "City of Stone", Demona has acquired a spell that lets her turn the entire human population of New York to stone, making her much more dangerous. In "Avalon", the enemy is the Archmage, who is made even more powerful by the Artifact of Doom he's toting. In "The Gathering", the clan is up against Oberon, a being with godlike powers and no morals beyond his immediate whims. Finally in "Hunter's Moon" Demona's back again, this time with a virus that can destroy all non-gargoyle life on earth, making her even more dangerous than Oberon, even though she's far less powerful. Averted in the bulk of the series, though, where they face enemies of varying power-level throughout.
  • Jackie Chan 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.
    • 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. 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 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 shot 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 Moments 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 single handedly conquers the World. They defeat her by getting a MacGuffin from the last person who beat her, that turns her back into a ghost. She's once again re-fleshed in season 3 albeit with her powers nerfed by another villain for being too untrustworthy. Still she's a worthy foe whenever she's fought.
    • S2: 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 1 vs 1 combat by the main characters. While still playing a very active part in season 3, he eventually gets overshadowed by....
    • S3: Hannibal Roy Bean the show's embodiment of true evil, the only character that has no trace of a likability to him. His theoretical victory over the protagonists is described (by Chase Young no less) as being WORSE than the end of the world. Far....far worse. While not exactly stronger than Chase, he's easily more dangerous.
  • 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 anew 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


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