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Unwinnable Training Simulation
aka: The Kobayashi Maru

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Saavik: I don't believe this was a fair test of my command abilities.
Kirk: And why not?
Saavik: Because... there was no way to win.
Kirk: A no-win situation is a possibility every commander may face. [...] How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn't you say?
— Informal debriefing from the "Kobayashi Maru" exam, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Our hero is executing an impossible mission. It's full of action and adventure, and he gets to show off how heroic he is, but at the last minute, something unexpected goes badly — often ridiculously so. The alarm goes off, the hero's weapons and equipment malfunction, and his teammates die screaming as they are picked off one by one by something large and scary. The last thing the hero sees is the killer robot swooping down to off him and...

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Computer, end program.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Occasionally, this will be subverted in that the character will win the scenario, by "cheating".

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


Examples

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    Anime and Manga 
  • Dragon Ball Z: In a filler episode of the Vegeta saga, Kami uses a simulation to introduce Krillin, Yamcha, Tien, and Chiaotzu to the capabilities of the Saiyans. Of course, at the level of strength they then possessed, there was no possible way for them to win. And then Kami points out that the Saiyans seen in the simulation were nowhere near as strong as the two heading for Earth in real life, putting the power gap in perspective; that's when they begin training even harder.
  • Str.A.In.: Strategic Armored Infantry, when Sara trains for sub-lightspeed permission.
  • Many times in the .hack series, although they're in a virtual world to begin with.
  • Used once in Outlaw Star, where Gene goes through several launch simulations. Each time, something goes badly wrong as a test to see how he reacts in unanticipated situations. Needless to say, it pissed him off, and the first launch went perfectly... if you don't count the thousands of dollars worth of damage he caused to the landing dock.
  • Code Geass doesn't use it in its narrative, but in one interview the show's director offered this sort of situation to illustrate the differences between the two male leads. As he tells it, there's a car wreck and two men are injured, one worse than the other; there's also a hospital some distance away. Lelouch, an "end justifies the means" type, would consider the factors, then take the man with less severe injuries to the hospital; that man lives, and Lelouch consoles himself over the other's death with the knowledge that at least he saved one person. Suzaku, a "means justifies the ends" type, would do his best to get both of them to the hospital, but they'd both die along the way; at first he'd curse his own weakness, but then he'd assuage himself by saying that he did the right thing.
  • Banner of the Stars opens with a fierce battle which results in the main characters' ship being destroyed. It turns out it was a mock engagement. It wasn't technically unwinnable, but as Lafiel and her crew were far less experienced than their opponents, nobody thought they'd win and it's made clear there was no shame in losing (Lafiel still feels disappointed in herself regardless).
  • The beginning episodes of Sky Girls were built up in such a way that the three main characters believe they're part of an aerobatics team, even when they start eventually training with weapons. But one episode's simulator suddenly throws the thought-to-be-extinct WORMs into their routine flight training. With no training and the WORM's overwhelming firepower, none of the girls, not even the Eika with her military background, can defeat it. It isn't until two episodes later (on a Hot Springs Episode no less) that their true purpose is revealed.
  • The "Program" short in The Animatrix featured scenarios which test how a crewmate would respond if one of their own turned against them. In this case, Cis is informed by her partner Duo that he has betrayed the rebels and informed the machines of their location. Having locked the program so she can't escape, it's pretty much a lose-lose situation. She can kill him but be killed when the machines destroy her ship, be killed by him outright, or join him in betraying the humans.
  • In episode 56 (The Ultimate Test) of Pokémon, Ash and company (along with Team Rocket) take a Pokemon test that seems designed to be impossible. One of the questions shows a black circle and asks which Pokemon's silhouette it is. Most answer Voltorb or Electrode, as both are the only perfectly spherical Pokemon. Instead it's "a Jigglypuff seen from above".

    Comic Books 
  • Try to count how many times the X-Men did this in their Danger Room. Between the comics and cartoons, Wolverine has had his butt kicked by simulated robots in order to learn an important lesson at least once per Story Arc.
    "Bang! You're dead."
    • In Joss Whedon's "Astonishing X-Men" run, Emma Frost simulates a Sentinel invasion as the beginning of student orientation. Without letting the other X-Men know. She wanted to hammer in the point that the world at large will always hate and fear the students for being mutants, and they always need to be ready to defend themselves.
  • Star Trek: Elite Force had a comic book adaptation which begins with this. The scenario was that the Voyager is attacked by a Borg Cube (complete with exterior shot), and Hazard Team is sent to plant explosives around the cube to distract them long enough for the Voyager to escape. During the attack, Munro falls into an assimilation chamber, where he finds an assimilated Foster. Not wanting to Shoot the Dog, he fails. Tuvok even points this scenario out and notes its similarity to the Kobayashi Maru. This was called back when Foster does get assimilated and Tuvok calls Munro out for not shooting him.
  • Played with in Preacher: Herr Starr must take unarmed combat lessons with an instructor infamous for badly injuring students on the first day. The instructor demands to know how Starr would defeat him as an obvious prelude to inflicting such a beating on Starr. Starr responds him by shooting him in both knees and declaring that he has no intention to ever be unarmed. While it supposed to be an unwinnable situation, it was never officially sanctioned, so it can't even really be called a "simulation".
  • In issue 1 of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers (Boom! Studios), Tommy is given one that involves escorting a group of civilians to safety during a giant monster attack. They walk right into a Putty ambush, but Zordon explains that it was meant to be impossible no matter which path he chose. Tommy, who's still dealing with the guilt of what he did while brainwashed, demands another go anyway.
  • Subverted in Secret Empire: The Champions think Black Widow's training simulations are unwinnable, and she says, no, there is a way to win; they're just refusing to do it. (She also despairs when they say it's just like what happened to Chris Pine.)
  • Similarly subverted in The Incredible Hercules: Hercules, disguised as Thor, is challenged to complete a game of chess by the dark elves. Declaring the scenario unwinnable, he triumphantly announces he is "changing the rules" and flips the table. The dark elf queen cheers him on, while one of her advisors futilely tries to inform her that the scenario was entirely winnable.

    Fan Works 
  • Many fanfiction writers have written their take on how they would win Star Trek's Kobayashi Maru scenario:
  • Warhammer40000/Mass Effect crossover Hammerhand has a Space Marine trying to beat one of these. The AI tries to persuade him that "winning" the simulation is impossible, since it has no end and simply keeps spawning more and more (and more powerful) enemies until you die. The point is to die as late as possible. The Space Marine presses on, which is entirely in character.
  • Hope On A Distant Mountain turns the events of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc into one, meant to test the skills of SHSL students with particularly high willpower or leadership potential. Naegi managed to beat it, much to everyone's surprise, but suffers from PTSD afterwards, struggling to adapt back to the real world and everyone's high expectations for him.
  • With This Ring's version of the Young Justice episode "Failsafe" shows Orange Lantern and the rest of team going into the simulation knowing it was a test before it goes horribly wrong, and M'gann accidentally causing them to believe the simulation was real. Thinking that Earth was under attack and his friends were dead or in danger, Orange Lantern summons the Ophidian to turn the tide and ends up defeating the simulation. To everyone's horror, the Ophidian comes out with them at the end of the simulation.
  • In the Discworld as visioned by A.A. Pessimal, the Guild of Assassins has more than one variation of this theme, usually set up as an instructive humbling of over-confident students.
    • The most famous is the "Vimes Run", where the students are convinced to take a run at Sir Samuel Vimes, who's all to happy to give them a reality check.
    • In Fresh Pair of Eyes, the students are tasked to drop a training explosive device (basically a loud firework) in close proximity to two tutors. Said tutors are not only in a well-defended position, but they've also set up all manner of booby traps and magical defenses that the students aren't aware of, planning to trip them up. They do — until four students pool their resources and succeed so well as to alarm their tutors.
    • At the latest point in their timeline, the Air Watch are collaborating with Unseen University — and specifically HEX the thinking engine and his human associate Ponder Stibbons — to devise a training simulation for their pilots where everything goes wrong. Just to really test them.
  • Some My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fanfics use a headcanon that Twilight's "hatch the dragon egg" test to enter the School for Gifted Unicorns was one of these. The egg is supposed to be impossible to hatch; the exam doesn't judge a prospective student's magical ability, but rather their reaction to failure. In this scenario, Twilight actually hatching the egg was a magical feat of Beyond the Impossible that qualified her to become Celestia's personal student.
  • Cheat Code: Support Strategist: For Izuku's practical Support entrance exam, Nedzu has Izuku hack UA's servers. Izuku is devastated when he's unable to succeed, but then feels better when Mei points out that since the school's cybersecurity is top-notch and impossible to be hacked by any random hacker, it's very likely that Nedzu's test was to see how Izuku dealt with problems he couldn't solve. Izuku's acceptance letter in the following chapter confirms this, with Powerloader admitting that if Izuku was successful, he would be extremely worried about the quality of UA’s cybersecurity.
    Mei: A lot of inventions are just about learning the process. Even if they don’t work, they still weren’t a waste of time because they make the next invention faster! UA’s security wouldn’t be the best in the business if a first-year could ram through it, right? They probably just wanted to see how you approached a problem that you couldn’t solve. They wanted to see your process!

    Film 
  • Star Trek:
    • The "Kobayashi Maru" training scenario, first seen in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, is a seminal example, even referenced in other sci-fi works. It's a test of how a cadet responds to a hopeless situation. The Kobayashi Maru in this scenario is a freighter which has struck a Space Mine and drifted into The Neutral Zone between Klingon and Federation territories. The cadet receives the ship's distress call and is obliged to respond by Starfleet mandate, so ignoring it is not an option — and the Klingons will likely kill the crew for "violating Klingon space". Any attempt to intervene, however, will cause multiple Klingon ships to attack the cadet and blow them to smithereens in under a minute. The trick with the simulation is that the computer will generate as many ships as it needs to, as fast and powerful as they need to be, regardless of what reality or physics would dictate, to make sure you lose. But in spite of this, during the film we discover that Kirk did beat it — by hacking the simulation in advance and reprogramming it so that he could win. Strictly speaking, this was cheating, but his instructors at least appreciated his lateral thinking and refusal to give up. It should also be noted that Kirk apparently took the test several times before he resorted to his unique solution; as he put it, he faced the scenario of being in a no-win situation several times, he simply refused to accept it.
    • The reboot film, set in an Alternate Timeline, actually shows Kirk beating the simulation by hacking it. This time, his instructors are more angry with him for cheating, but Kirk retorts that the computer itself is cheating, the simulation has no bearing on reality, and he explicitly doesn't believe there can be a true no-win situation.
      Pike: It depends on how you define "winning", doesn't it?
  • Referenced in Dog Soldiers, when a platoon on a training exercise finds out their "opponents" have bugged their communications: "It's the Kobayashi Maru test — they've fixed it so we can't fucking win!"
  • In Apollo 13, we get a look at the training simulations of the Apollo Program, and they are utterly merciless. It helps when the actual explosion happens — even though NASA was blindsided by it, convinced that such a scenario was impossible, the crew kept a level head and thought up good solutions. Their survival inspired NASA to become even crazier with its simulated scenarios.
    Jim Lovell: If I had a dollar for every time they killed me in this thing, I wouldn't have to work for you, Deke.
  • The Matrix:
    • The building jump scenario is not technically unwinnable, but nobody has ever made their first jump. Not even Neo, who's The Chosen One. The point is to force Neo to understand how much of his human instinct he needs to overcome to realize his full capabilities inside the Matrix.
    • The Agent training scenario with the woman in the red dress who turns into an Agent is a scenario that is designed to be unwinnable, always ending in the trainee's death. Neo never realizes that he's not really inside the Matrix until Morpheus freezes the simulation (with a simulated Agent now pointing a gun at Neo's head). The simulation is designed to teach that a human cannot beat an Agent, no matter what, and the only possible way out is to escape.
  • In Moving Violations, the corrupt judge and policeman set up an unwinnable driving course to ensure the traffic-school students will all fail, allowing the pair to sell off their cars and keep the money.
  • Discussed in Never Say Never Again, where Bond's new boss is dissatisfied with his performance during the simulated training missions (he died once and lost his legs in another mission). Bond then points out that training missions cannot be compared to the real thing because the adrenaline boost is missing.
  • In Passenger 57, John Cutter's Establishing Character Moment is forcing a stewardess undergoing hostage negotiation training to endure one of these, with him playing a hostile and irrational hostage taker who "kills" his "hostage" out of sheer spite. This gets him chewed out by his superiors for driving the trainees too hard, but it also provides foreshadowing to the fact the Big Bad and his goons all share this mentality.
  • In The Recruit, the protagonist is kidnapped from his CIA training and held captive by what he believes to be enemy operatives; the scenario is actually a test to see how he reacts and how long he lasts. Upon his release, he laments having eventually broken and is informed that that is the point of the exercise — it doesn't stop until you break.
  • In WarGames, an unwinnable scenario is created to teach the AI futility — specifically that it cannot win a nuclear war, because nobody does. The scenario repeats again and again until the message is imparted.

    Literature 
  • The Star Trek Novel Verse has many many variations of the Kobayashi Maru scenario, giving us insight into how the various ship captains think by showing their responses to the simulation.
    • Kirk is throughout acknowledged to be the only one ever to beat the scenario, and as in the films, it's because he stubbornly believes that there is no such thing as a no-win scenario and hacks the simulation to reflect that. Exactly why seems to vary between novels. Some claim he just didn't like the idea of a cheating computer who would test him on a scenario that by definition cannot occur in real life. Others claim he specifically hacked the computer so that the simulated Klingons would think of him as a Living Legend and actually be willing to negotiate, reflecting the reputation he hoped to cultivate for real (and to an extent did) — the semi-canonical novels by William Shatner claim this as a basis for the test's later use as a lateral thinking puzzle. Still others give Kirk a Freudian Excuse and claim that his refusal to believe in a no-win scenario comes from his traumatic memories of the executions on Tarsus IV (seen in "Conscience of the King").
    • Sulu goes the diplomatic route, staying out of the Neutral Zone, and leaves the Maru to its fate at the Klingons' hands. This is the most "correct" decision, but it's a tough decision to make nonetheless.
    • Nog used his Hat and tried to bribe the Klingons.
    • Chekov self-destructed his ship, but in the process killed everyone — his own crew, the Klingons, and the crew of the Maru.
    • Scotty kept using his science chops to lock the simulation in an endless battle, as he responded to every one of the computer's impossible attacks (at one point it summoned more ships than existed in the entire Klingon fleet) with physics tricks that worked only on paper. He and the computer kept going for hours, and the examiners realized that the only way the computer could win was by waiting until Scotty just collapsed of exhaustion — which, at the rate Scotty was going, could take several days. The examiners shut down the simulation, and Scotty protested that if he had access to a real engineering room, he could have beaten the simulation. This got him transferred to the Engineering Corps, which was where he wanted to go all along.
    • Riker, ever unpredictable, is alluded to have brought an EVA suit to the simulation so that he could fight the enemy ships with his fists.
    • At least two characters blew up the Maru themselves. One rationalized that it was very likely a trap, and if it wasn't, it was screwed to Hell anyway. The other proved to be completely apathetic to the Maru's crew and saw the simulation as a fight with Klingons, using the ship's volatile crew to his advantage.
    • Kirk's nephew Peter does a different simulation where the enemies are Romulans rather than Klingons, and he uses this to win the scenario by doing something that would work against Romulans but not Klingons — he challenges the enemy commander to single combat. In Romulan culture, such a formally declared challenge cannot be refused (on pain of death); the examiners cannot anticipate that Peter Kirk would even know this and assume he cheated like his uncle, but Spock explains the truth (it works on Vulcans too, as the practice predates the Vulcan-Romulan schism). This provides the distraction he needs to beam the Maru's crew onto the Enterprise; how he himself fares is a different question.
      Peter Kirk: It's a no-win scenario, Mr. Spock, I'll give you that. But only for me.
    • The heroine of Dreadnought!, after her simulated crew has been nearly wiped out by the Klingons, procures an emergency priority code (which shouldn't work in real life but does in the simulation) and uses it to link her communicator to the computer at Starfleet Headquarters. She then uses the computer's power to run the entire simulated ship. This causes the simulation (and the computer back at HQ) to crash, preventing the Klingons from formally recording a final victory. The instructors call this a qualified tie and tell her not to do it again.
    • A Star Trek: Enterprise Relaunch novel depicts the origin of the Kobayashi Maru scenario, which is not a simulation. It goes like the simulation does, but with the additional wrinkle that the enemy ships have a device that can take remote control of his ship's systems. Captain Archer ends up having to flee and allow the Maru to be destroyed. That's why it's known as a no-win scenario.
  • In Blade of Tyshalle, the College of Battle Magic has an advanced class that opens with the Lakefront simulation. In it, our student Actor is put into a VR simulation of Overworld, in the docks of the city of Ankhana, where he/she hears the sound of a woman being assaulted down a nearby alley by a single man. Those actors who confront the man will quickly find out that there are two others waiting on the low rooftops to jump some fool like you rushing to her aid. Even defeating all three won't do; the best student in the College, Kris Hansen, got that far only to be knifed by the woman, who is in on the charade. When Hari Michaelson, a Labour-caste near-dropout with terrible magick skills, enters the challenge, he becomes the first person in the history of the College to beat the simulation — not bothering with spells, he gets the jump on the first man, KOs the other two before they can recover from jumping into the alley, and knows better than to trust the woman, who gets her throat cut when she tries to knife him. He only fails because the test expected him to use magick, and the instructor hacked the simulation to bring the other players back to life and beat him senseless, something that was never before needed for the Lakefront sim. Regardless, as the instructor points out, the real point of the test is to show whether the Actor-to-be can give the viewers an interesting death scene.
  • "The two .38s roared simultaneously." James Bond concludes something like this in the first chapter of Moonraker, which is basically a quick-draw contest. He puts the other "guy" (a cardboard target) in hospital, but is "killed".
  • This occurs several times in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, especially the X-Wing books. As in Real Life, cockpit-shaped simulators are essential tools for fighter pilot training — but here, holographic and gravity-altering technology makes the simulations much more realistic. They get used for all kinds of things, from training to testing new tactics to teamwork-building exercises, and they tend to be either this trope or a Fictional Video Game. There are even a few times when the one in the simulator doesn't know it's a sim.
    • Michael Stackpole's X-Wing: Rogue Squadron opens with prospective Rogues training by playing the Redemption scenario, which is so infamously difficult that it's earned the in-universe nickname of the "Requiem scenario". Four X-Wings are tasked with defending the corvette Korolev as it transfers wounded to the medical frigate Redemption, while an Imperial frigate pops in and out of the system launching waves of TIE Fighters and Bombers. The "by the book" strategy developed by pilots is for two X-Wings to engage the TIEs as they're launched while the other two stay behind to guard the corvette, otherwise the Imperial frigate joins the battle and make a terrible situation even worse. It's noted that "by the book" is not a particularly good strategy, as it leaves those actually fighting the TIEs outnumbered by a substantial margin, but since the Rebels are outnumbered and outgunned regardless, it's simply the least bad of the available choices. Corran Horn only wins the mission by taking out the more dangerous TIE Bombers with his proton torpedoes before finishing off the enemy fighters, and even then he lucks out after barely "surviving" a head-on engagement that damaged the last remaining TIE Fighter enough for a torpedo to catch up with it. The mission is based in-universe on a historical battle and out-of-universe on That One Level from the X-Wing flight sim.
    • When prospective pilots for Wraith Squadron are being evaluated, Wes Janson runs them through a simulation pitched as a holding action against an enemy force while their home base evacuates. Things go Off the Rails immediately so that the pilots are being attacked before their ships have even exited the hangar, and when they request orders, they find that Control has been "killed". It is, of course, a test to see how the pilots can improvise and survive a worst-case scenario, with the twist that each pilot's score is swapped with that of his or her wingman, for an additional lesson on the importance of teamwork. Then they change the scenario to mimic what happened to Myn Donos' first command, which was wiped out in an ambush; Donos is excused from it because of the trauma, but the Wraiths put him into it anyway to try and break his Heroic BSoD.
    • Death Star has a pilot compulsively replaying a simulation that had been made from a scan of one of the top fighter pilots. Even as a simulation, the top pilot kept gunning down the compulsive pilot within seconds, but this pilot was pleased to note that he was lasting a couple seconds more than when he'd started. Later in the book, that same top pilot is said to have engaged in a practice fighter duel with Darth Vader and lasted about the same amount of time. The viewpoint pilot, who'd seen it and been morbidly fascinated, swore that if he was ever in Vader's sights, he'd just overload his engines and kill himself.
  • In Reach, by Edward Gibson, the Wayfarer 2 astronauts are approaching their destination, when one looks out the window to find they're about to collide with... his house! It turns out they're in the simulator, and the people running it were trying to demonstrate the importance of staying focused even when something unexpected happens.
  • Mentioned in one of the Artemis Fowl books. In one of her LEP exams, Holly defeated a simulation that pitted her against insurmountable numbers by blasting the projector. The computer recorded defeat of all enemies, so she passed. In a prequel short-story, she similarly sidesteps some potentially career-killing disciplinary action by a combination of Exact Words and shooting her superior officer (with a paintball gun).
  • Ender's Game:
    • The "Giant's Drink" segment of the fantasy game is a version of it. A giant offers the Player Character a choice of two drinks, claiming one is poison and the other leads to Fairyland. The player dies a gruesome death no matter what he chooses. It's meant to be a gauge of a child's suicidal tendencies (Battle School being a stressful place). Ender, on the other hand, just kills the giant, and it forces the game to invent entirely new sections that had never existed before, generally freaking out the Powers That Be.
    • Ender believes this is the case with his final test at Command school. Fed up with everything and hoping to show that he's too savage to actually be given a command, he sacrifices his ships in a kamikaze attack and destroys the enemy homeworld. Then it turns out that not only were they hoping he'd do that, but it wasn't a simulation at all, and he had really won the war — by being more brutal than he ever could be had he known that real lives were at stake. When Ender learns that he really committed genocide of an entire planet and sent his own soldiers under his command to their deaths, he's very guilty — and pissed.
  • Almost every novel in Honor Harrington has simulator runs, some of which are indeed meant to be (nearly) unwinnable. More often than not, however, it is Honor Harrington herself who sets up the exercise:
    • On Basilisk Station contains probably the most notable example. Her ship is built as a testbed for a new "grav lance" that can only be fired (for all intents and purposes) at point-blank range. All the ship's non-melee weapons are removed to make room for the giant sucker punch. In the first exercise, she does manage to "kill" the flagship of the Manticoran fleet, but in all subsequent exercises her ship is singled out and destroyed as it tries to close. The weapon's developer would later admit that she knew that the weapon in question was impractical for actual combat, but she was overridden.
    • When Harrington is on medical leave and instructing at Saganami Island, she arranges for selected cadets to participate in extracurricular simulations. When she plays the Opposing Force, the students pass if they somehow manage to survive the simulated battle. That's fair, as Harrington is universally recognized as one of the top naval commanders of her era, and her opponents are college-aged officer cadets.
    • In Echoes of Honor, an admiral training the new LAC squadrons is opposed to the idea, so in order to discredit the whole idea, the simulations are arranged to be so unwinnable as to be ridiculous. Alice Truman, the officer in charge of the LACs, was so good at training them that they kept winning, and she picked up on the admiral's plan and insisted that her superiors find a way to fairly evaluate the LACs whatever they did.
    • In one of the prequel books, Travis complains about a no-win scenario he was observing. He notes that the trainees lost to an Opposing Force armed with a weapon that was physically impossible to produce. He then goes on to explain exactly why this so-called "Multi-Drive Missile" could never be made, earning him the ire of the officer who came up with the simulation, as he'd been trying to get the funding to develop said MDM. While it was eventually developed, Admiral Sonja Hemphill had an additional 400 years of further R&D to build on to make it practical, and even then one of Travis' objections — that an MDM would be significantly larger than a single-drive missile, and thus have a different sensor return — still applied.
  • Early in Otherland, the barbarian Thargor gets killed. Then we find out it was a virtual RPG and meet the kid playing Thargor. Still, Thargor's death is pretty traumatic, since in this MMORPG, a character's death is permanent and the player had spent years grinding that character until he was the most powerful in the whole game.
  • The first book of the Sten series has the title character put through one of these during his basic training ... but it's not really a test. Instead, by claiming he handled the situation badly, his superiors can pretend he's being washed out of training and kicked out of the service in disgrace. He's actually being transferred to Mantis Section, the elite commando force. Sten isn't told this in advance.
  • Early in the novel Gravity by Tess Garritsenn, there is a scene of a catastrophic space-shuttle launch that turns out to be a simulation. A higher-up had expressed concern that the team members were overconfident, so the instructors tried to take them down a notch and remind them, "Disaster is not theoretical."
  • In the Culture novel Surface Detail, a protagonist in an Orbital militia does one of these and complains that it serves no purpose.
  • One of the later Animorphs books begins this way, with the Yeerks supposedly invading the Hork-Bajir valley. It's used to demonstrate how unprepared everyone is, especially with all the families hiding there.
  • In Red Mars, Arkady Bogdanov is in charge of landing simulations for the Ares. He takes an inordinate amount of glee in "problem runs", making everyone groan when the announcement comes over the loudspeaker. The actual landing on Mars goes off without a hitch.
    "Arkady has gone mad!"
    "He has
    simulated going mad."
  • Parodied in Myth-Quoted, in which the opening scene (quickly revealed to be a training simulation) shows Skeeve being beleaguered by a chaotic and brutal mob of reporters.
  • In Sergey Lukyanenko's Cripples, the protagonists are hired to "tame" the AI of a newly-built warship commissioned by a human colony. The colonists angered the Halflings, who built the ship, by haggling over the price, a big no-no in Halfling culture (since it devalues their work). So the Halflings found a loophole in their contract and programmed the ship's AI to reject the commands of any crew which it finds "unworthy". The only way to prove a crew's worthiness is to resolve a critical situation in a way that the AI would never be able to do. Nothing they do works — including a successful completion of a dangerous mission to destroy several powerful robotic ships left to guard a Negative Space Wedgie (because they needed a local human colony's help to do it) — until the protagonist coaxes the ubiquitous rats on the ship to chew through enough cables to permanently damage the AI. The AI finally considers the crew "worthy".
  • Derek Robinson's Hullo Russia, Goodbye England contains one based on Real Life in the RAF: A flight simulator of a Vulcan jet bomber, tasked with delivering Britain's nuclear deterrent to the Soviet Union, creates a long and horrible sequence in which everything goes wrong. And that's everything — the bomb arms itself prematurely, or it jams in the bomb-bay with the clock ticking down to detonation, or Russian countermeasures show up and attack, or they fly too close to a nuclear explosion from a different aircraft, or the aircraft itself develops escalating mechanical problems. The test itself is unwinnable and designed to test the aircrews to the limit, weeding out those who prove to be indecisive.
  • The main character of the Larry Bond novel Cold Choices starts the book in one — he and his crew are in a simulated submarine that is springing leaks, and the leaks get bigger and bigger as time goes by. Everyone going in knows that it's unwinnable — the people running the tests will just keep adding more leaks and pumping in more water until the compartment floods. The test is about their ability to keep their heads straight and continue to fight for their lives in a highly stressful and uncomfortable situation, and they are graded by how long they are able to delay the inevitable.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In one episode of the The A-Team, Hannibal, Face, and Murdock are trapped in a Vietnamese prison, and Hannibal goes over in his head how they'll escape. Needless to say, the imagined attempt doesn't end well.
  • The first episode of season 6 of Castle jumps ahead two months into what appears to be an Action Prologue demonstrating that Beckett is now a federal agent and still a total badass — until she learns too late that the hostage she was protecting was actually another bad guy, when said hostage shoots her several times in the chest. Cut to the office, where she's being questioned about the training exercise.
  • One episode of Cleopatra 2525 features a variant where one character had to learn the nearly impossible route and hazards of a rescue mission using a virtual reality simulator (in time to actually make the run and save a teammate). Of course, nobody bothers to tell her it's a simulation the first time, so for her the trope is in effect like she's in the audience until she fails and sees her friend die before the simulation resets.
  • Happened a few times in ER:
    • Abby is working with a dying patient, with Romano briskly telling at her to move faster, only for the patient to die. Then, just as Romano solemnly and brutally tells her that the patient is dead, the camera swivels around to show us that the patient was a dummy.
    • Sam and a much taller, muscular man are yelling at each other when suddenly the man tackles Sam to the ground. Only then do we see that there are mats on the ground. Turns out it was a training session for nurses to deal with violent patients.
  • An episode of Grey's Anatomy does this, though not with the usual opening scene fake-out. Owen runs a trauma-certification drill where the residents have to keep their dummy patients "alive" after an accident until a helicopter arrives. As hours go by with no imaginary helicopter, the point of the test becomes clear. Hilarity Ensues when April refuses to accept defeat and ends up hijacking the (supposedly damaged) ambulance used in the scenario and driving her last patients around to the hospital entrance.
  • In the short-lived series Heist, a cliffhanger has professional thief Mickey locking himself in a vault to motivate his team members to figure out how to open it quickly before he suffocates. The next episode begins with the team members apparently failing to unlock the vault in time, only for Mickey to yell at them and for the camera to reveal the giant hole they had cut in the vault to get him out.
  • An episode of JAG ends with Harm crashing on a carrier landing. Turns out Harm was running a simulation of the doomed flight of the Defendant of the Week. It's implied that Harm has run the simulation several times, crashed every time, and gone down with the jet rather than eject every time.
  • Referenced as an Actor Allusion in Leverage, where the hacker Chaos (played by Star Trek veteran Wil Wheaton) is called the "Kobayashi Maru" by the government, since his attacks are good enough as to be effectively unbeatable.
  • In The Listener, paramedic main character Toby and his partner get stuck while trying to reach a woman with a head wound. She is annoyed, but amused; if it hadn't been an exam, she could have died.
  • Quantico:
    • In "America", the agent and analyst trainees are given three reconstructed rooms where a crime was plotted (which the FBI would eventually foil). Their task is to deduce what was planned and where the crime would take place (assassinating a senator, bombing Liberty Hall, and burning down a Planned Parenthood) — and then prioritize them. They figure out they don't have to prioritize them at all — none of them ever got past the planning stages. The real point of the test was to show that information is only as good as the source it comes from, and Alex is the only one who figures out that the real culprit was Liam — who gave them their info in the first place.
    • "Clue" has a straighter example: The trainees are placed in a simulated airplane, with the trainers playing terrorists or civilians. The class tries the scenario over and over, trying different approaches each time but always failing. Sometimes the plan wasn't thought through enough, sometimes the trainers add new variables, and sometimes the trainees just make simple mistakes. By the end, Liam reveals, as the trainees were starting to understand, that the scenario is designed to be unbeatable, because sometimes even having the most competent people on the job can result in an unwinnable situation.
  • The Star Trek series again has attempts at the Kobayashi Maru scenario. They don't appear on the original series because the scenario was first introduced in The Wrath of Khan, after the original series ended, but subsequent series will address either the Maru or subsequent twists to it. The later the series is set, the less likely you'll see the Maru, because by then enough people will have come up with clever solutions to the simulation that something fresh needs to be introduced.
    • The Next Generation:
      • "Thine Own Self" introduces a variant for Bridge Officer qualification, in which Troi realizes that she can only succeed if she orders the holographic LaForge to his death. The point is to emphasize that bridge officers are in charge of a ship with hundreds, if not thousands of people, and that (as The Wrath of Khan once famously put it), the lives of the many outweigh the lives of the few, or the one — even if that "one" is one of your closest friends. Troi can't overcome this, and Riker has to reject her:
      Riker: I can't. As much as I care about you, my first duty is to the ship. I cannot let any bridge officer serve who's not qualified. I'm sorry.
      • In "Coming of Age", we see Wesley Crusher in a simluation where an "accident" leaves two technicians trapped in a room that would soon fill with radiation, and Wesley can only save one of them. One is too injured to move on his own, and the other is too terrified to move on his own. Wesley chooses to save the injured man. Unlike the Maru scenario, this is just for entrance to Starfleet Academy, and it's tailored specifically to Wesley's greatest fear — which is why it's the exact scenario by which Picard had to leave Wesley's father (and his best friend) to die on an away mission.
      • In "Chain of Command", Picard, Crusher, and Worf simulate storming a Cardassian base as preparation for the real thing. They program the holodeck to prepare for every eventuality, but in the field they still walk right into a trap.
    • In the Deep Space Nine episode "The Magnificent Ferengi", the Ferengi are attempting to rescue Quark and Rom's mother, and fail so miserably that one of her rescuers shoots her. Then it's revealed to be a holosuite simulation, in preparation for the real thing. And it's still on easy mode; they just suck.
    • Voyager is so guilty of showing someone dying in a Batman Cold Open and then revealing it to be a simulation that you could make a Drinking Game out of it:
      • The failed invasion of a Borg ship to steal some Phlebotinum that leads to Borg storming Voyager proves to be a simulation.
      • In "Worst Case Scenario", Tuvok provides an interesting twist: he made a "Maquis Rebellion Scenario" simulation but never finished it, since he saw the Maquis as having so few problems fitting in that it would never be likely to even happen. Paris happens upon it, and he and the crew have so much fun playing with it that they pressure Tuvok to complete it. However, Tuvok and Paris then find that former Maquis Seska (who had defected to the Kazon) discovered it and rigged it to be a true no-win scenario with Everything Trying to Kill You — and with the safeties disabled, meaning they could be Killed Off for Real. The bridge crew couldn't shut it down quickly, but they did have access to the writing interface, allowing Janeway to write herself in as a Deus ex Machina until they could turn it off.
      • "Threshold" starts off with Tom Paris trying to break the Warp 10 limit in a shuttle. As he reaches Warp 9.95, the nacelles are ripped off and the shuttle explodes. Paris appears sitting on the holodeck floor, and B'Elanna Torres tells him he's dead. How they were able to program a simulation for what would happen at Warp 10 without any data on what happens when you approach Warp 10 is unclear, but this episode is infamous and that's the least of its problems.
      • In "Learning Curves", Tuvok administers a battle simulation test to a group of Maquis crewmen. The attack ends with the simulated Voyager going down in flames, all phasers blazing. When the test ends, the trainees believe they were facing an unwinnable scenario (obliquely referencing the Kobayashi Maru), but Tuvok did program in a winning condition: retreat. Aside from the outcome of the battle, there was nothing at stake, so there was no reason not to withdraw and live to fight another day. It's distinct from the Maru simulation in that the latter included a distress call that Starfleet officers are duty-bound to respond to.
  • Stargate SG-1:
    • An early episode "The Gamekeeper" has the SG-1 team trapped in a simulation of one of the most terrible moments of their lives and tasked with changing the outcome. However, the entire simulation is rigged, as whatever they try to do causes the simulation to merely alter things so whatever did happen happens anyway. The team "wins" by simply refusing to play the game anymore, causing the eponymous Gamekeeper to let them leave or so it seems....
    • In "Avatar", Teal'c is trapped in a training simulation designed to learn from him and become harder to beat as a result. It did this by either spawning enemies right around corners to shoot him, spawning new enemies after the conditions of the simulation had been beaten, or adding factors to make the enemies harder to beat. It took Daniel jumping in as an ally (with the ability to see the future as a cheat) for the computer to finally give Teal'c a victory scenario. Worse, it turns out it was a reverse-Clap Your Hands If You Believe scenario. Since Teal'c's mind was driving the game, it turns out that Teal'c had to believe he'd won, or every time he'd find that The Computer Is a Cheating Bastard and would change the rules on him. And he could never see the battle against the Goa'uld finally being over.
  • Stargate Atlantis has a blatant one in "Progeny", where they think they escaped, make it back to Atlantis, and then the city gets attacked by nine hive ships with fifteen more on the way. Sheppard has to stay behind to trigger the self-destruct.
  • Stargate Universe uses the trope in "Trial and Error": Destiny projects a battle scenario into Young's dreams wherein the ship is attacked by aliens. Young tries to attack them, but they overpower and destroy the ship. Young tries to turtle behind the shields until the ship can jump to FTL, but the simulation just generates more ships. Then he tries to agree to their demands (handing over Chloe), but that just causes the shields to drop, allowing the aliens to board and kill everyone. Young never wins; Rush just shuts it off when he gets tired of it interfering with the ship.
  • In the blow-off for Warehouse 13's third season, the Big Bad Walter Sykes traps Myka in a chair and forces H.G. Wells to play chess for her life. Wells recollects her mentor's proclivities and breaks the rules to win the game.
  • One of these opens the third episode of Whiskey Cavalier. The team almost succeeds at saving the hostages.
  • The opening to one episode of The Wire shows Michael Lee being trained in a gunfight simulation with paint guns by Chris Partlow and Snoop, who are The Dragon and The Brute respectively for a ruthless drug organization and have at least 22 kills between them, while Michael has practically no experience with a gun. Michael wins anyway, foreshadowing his future.
  • Flashpoint: At the start of "Day Game", new team member Raf is trying to negotiate down a subject played by Ed. No matter what he does, Raf can't win (defined as everyone surviving); Ed kills himself in one round, Ed kills Raf another time... at the end of the episode, Raf figures out the solution: There is no solution, it's all about living with the choices you make, and a reminder that you can do everything right and things still come out wrong.
  • SEAL Team has one such simulation in the pilot: Clay Spenser is presented with a room with a seated female hostage and a military-aged male. He focuses on the male, and doesn't notice until it's too late that the female hostage now has a gun to his head. When Big Chief chews him out, he lampshades the nature of the exercise, and argues that if he'd checked the woman before restraining the man, he'd still have been dinged anyway.

    Radio 
  • Journey into Space: In The Host, the Orion Simulation is a training simulation that military cadets undergo as part of their training. J.J. Andreev is the only person in history to have ever penetrated its defences. The simulation involves a booby trap which is designed to demonstrate that focusing all of your energy on an attack leaves you vulnerable to counterattack.

    Video Games 
  • Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core begins with one of these, with Zack and Angeal on a simulated mission to the Sector 1 train station (which was not entirely unlike that of the original game). At least it explains why Zack was acting so casual with a dozen soldiers firing machine guns at him... At the end of the mission he engages Sephiroth who viciously and effortlessly defeats him, only for Angeal to end the simulation as Sephiroth holds his sword business-edge over Zack's face.
  • James Bond likes this trope.
    • The first mission in GoldenEye: Rogue Agent is one of these, with the eponymous agent and a simulated James Bond getting shot down in a helicopter over Fort Knox, and Bond dying a few seconds in. Afterward, the agent is fired from MI6 for a combination of that and for letting the bad guys detonate a bomb because he wasted too much time killing everybody he could.
    • James Bond does like this trope. In 007: From Russia with Love, the player watches his character get garroted in the cutscene following a lengthy infiltration mission. Turns out it's a training scenario for the Dragon, and the player's character was an evil mook-in-a-mask rather than Bond. As this same scene (minus the infiltration) happens in the original movie, the player shouldn't be too surprised.
  • Ninja Gaiden for the original Xbox begins with what turns out to have been a training mission. What makes this a bit disconcerting is the fact that you kill a good 200 ninjas (absolutely no ambiguity about whether they're dead or just knocked out here) before the audience is let in on this.
    • It's All There in the Manual: the rival ninja clan is, well, a rival ninja clan, enemies of the Hayabusa ninjas. Ryu murders them. But the leader of the rival ninja clan is, in fact, his uncle, and so they don't really fight to the death. Unless Ryu loses.
  • Space Quest V: The Next Mutation opens with Roger Wilco at the helm of a spaceship facing a dire red alert situation (a direct homage to the Kobayashi Maru scenario). He's then interrupted by on the viewscreen by an actual captain who tells him to stop messing around in the spaceship simulator and get back to class.
  • Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force couldn't resist: the game opens with you playing as Ensign Munro with an away team on a Borg cube. Then things go horribly wrong and you end up killing yourself and your team mates, only to reveal that's a Holodeck simulation all along. True to form, Tuvok is there to tell you what a sorry excuse for a Starfleet officer you are. Even worse, he tells you, as you board the turbolift, to consider the scenario to be your personal Kobayashi Maru.
  • Starfleet Academy games tend to have the actual Kobayashi Maru as a level. In the old PC version by Interplay, you're given the option to cheat in a similar way to Kirk — in fact, you have to in order to get the best ending. Your bridge crew's reactions when the Klingons recognize you are priceless.
    • In the SNES version, the only way to get the Kirk ending was to play as Kirk — by inputting a Cheat Code at the name selection menu (you could only select from a limited amount of preexisting names), enabling you to name your cadet "James T. Kirk". All other name combinations resulted in the standard Kobayashi Maru scenario, with either the loss of the freighter, or the loss of your ship.
  • One of the "Tales from New Terra" short stories from Outpost 2 opens up with a crew heading to the spaceport to fight a fire. It is later revealed that they are firefighters training in a simulator.
  • The Starfleet Adventures mod for Escape Velocity Nova (based on Star Trek: The Original Series and the first six movies — with some things from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that would already have been there but weren't mentioned until the later shows) has the Kobayashi Maru as the first thing the player does. It was designed to be unbeatable for the player (six D-7s versus one Constitution-class), but some players managed to beat it only to find that the dev team hadn't accounted for that.
    • The dev team did have a plan, and mentioned to the public what it was (the player would get a suitably impressed reaction, and would get to jump a rank, getting them access to better officers and stronger ships more quickly). Unfortunately, it hadn't yet been implemented in the last public release... which was in 2010.
  • Demon's Souls all the way.
    • To clarify, the tutorial takes you through all the basics: movement, attacking, defending, counters, items, etc... Then you face your very first boss, who is capable of killing you in one hit, no matter what armor you have on, and is very likely to do so... On the off chance that you manage to survive the fight and defeat him, you are transported to another area where a massive (we're talking as big as the whole freaking room) dragon delivers a single instant death punch right to your face in a cutscene, resulting in your death.
  • Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness begins with a simulator involving two powerful Pokémon, Salamence and Metagross, and is quite a difficult battle for one that opens a Pokémon game. It's a bit subverted in that it's deliberately and consistently winnable in exactly one way, but in a way that a beginner (that is, the player character at that moment) shouldn't get.
  • Star Trek Online added in the "No-Win Situation" PVE mode for the Federation players. A team of five players are tasked in protecting a frigate against increasingly difficult foes. Most players can reach level 5 before the frigate is destroyed. The game will send out game-wide notifications for those who pass level 8, 9, and 10, with level 10 having the game proudly boasting that a player "Doesn't Believe In A No-Win Situation".
  • Star Trek: Klingon Academy combines this with Secret Test of Character during a simulated mission to prevent war with the Tholians.
  • The infamous X-Men for the Nintendo Entertainment System features the Danger Room as a practice level, which just spams an endless stream of enemies at you until you have practiced (read: gotten bored) and pick a different level. Being Nintendo Hard and rife with Game Breaking Bugs, the rest of the game doesn't fare much better either.
  • The very first Wing Commander game starts by dropping the player into a simulator mission that destroys the player's fighter before they can do anything, as an excuse to enter in the player's callsign for the sim's "high scores" screen.
  • The Kobayashi Maru shows up in Star Trek Bridge Crew
  • The final tutorial stage in HITMAN (2016) was intended to be this. The training director based it on the apex of his own career, with extra guards added in, in a deliberate attempt to force 47 to wash out of the program. He passes anyway (well, it is the tutorial) thanks mainly to the Mugged for Disguise method, which was unpopular with Agency trainees and rendered many of the extra guards moot.

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

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

    Western Animation 
  • The Legion of Super-Heroes Season Finale "Sundown: Part 1" opens with the entire team being destroyed one by one by the Fatal Five. Then the simulation ends, and they prep to start again. Phantom Girl is not amused. "There's only so many times a girl can face her simulated doom in one day!"
  • Used in the "Glitter N' Gold" episode of Jem. Jerrica wants to tell her boyfriend, Rio, that she is Jem's secret identity. She uses Synergy, her hologram-making super-computer to make an illusion of Rio to see what will happen; it goes badly. Synergy assumes that she might be wrong—but then the real Rio explodes at Kimber after she reveals that she made a mistake — using almost the exact same words the holographic Rio did. This came from Christy Marx, the writer of most of the episodes of the Jem series, who wanted Jerrica to have a reason to keep her other identity a secret from Rio.
  • The Family Guy two-parter, Stewie Kills Lois/Lois Kills Stewie, is revealed to be one of these in the final minutes.
    • Lampshaded when Brian describes it as "a huge middle finger to the viewers."
  • The Powerpuff Girls use a holographic training room in one episode as a Shout-Out to X-men. In the episode "Bubblevicious", Bubbles sneaks into the room to train so she would be taken more seriously. She manages to accomplish this at Level 11.
  • One Time Squad episode began with the heroes fighting a pyromaniac George Washington in a training simulation (bizarrely this wasn't part of the simulation's design: Larry just wanted to see what would happen if they invited "virtual Washington" for a tour of the space station...)
  • The episode "Failsafe" of Young Justice turned out to be one of these that had Gone Horribly Wrong. The Martian Manhunter put the team in a psychic simulation in which alien invaders killed the entire Justice League, as a test to see how the team would react to catastrophe without the League's guidance. However, upon seeing Artemis "die", M'gann inadvertently took control of the simulation and made the entire team think it was real, not only plunging everyone into extreme trauma, but also nearly trapping everyone who "died" in a coma. No matter what, winning was completely impossible. No matter what they did, the situation would continue to get worse and worse until they failed. Even when Martian Manhunter entered the simulation to regain control and end it, he forgot that it was fake, and only remembered when everyone but M'gann had been "killed". That said, the simulation ended up having to Ass Pull a second alien mothership to win, so they did pretty well.
  • The direct-to-video/pilot episode three-parter "The Adventure Begins" of Buzz Lightyear of Star Command has this. At Star Command's training deck, Commander Nebula calls Buzz up to watch one of the rookies, Mira, with the intention of making her Buzz's new partner. Mira beats Buzz's level, Level 9, and goes on to Level 10, which is comprised of three huge and presumably impenetrable robots. Where any normal Ranger, even Buzz (since we never hear that he beat it), would have been blasted to Game Over, Mira succeeds by using her ghosting abilities.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has Princess Celestia's school for gifted unicorns. The test to get in involves hatching a dragon egg, which Word of God said was unwinnable. When Twilight Sparkle took the test, her magical abilities were exponentially multiplied as a result of Rainbow Dash's Sonic Rainboom, which allowed her to pass the test and, coincidentally, give birth to Spike. However the Season Five finale seemingly retcons this idea away since, when she fails to hatch the egg when the past is changed, she isn't accepted into the school. One must wonder how exactly one does get into this school.
    • If we're playing the Kobayashi Maru example straight, then chances are the true test is a test of character, judging how well a pony can accept failure and realize where their flaws lie. Given how Twilight takes the thought of failure (before the Rainboom boosts her power, she quickly gives up and apologizes for wasting the instructor's time), it's not exactly a surprise she failed in the many alternate timelines.
  • Inverted in Steven Universe. The Gems give Steven a test of skill rigged so that it's actually impossible to fail (the idea was to boost Steven's confidence in himself). Steven is upset when he figures this out, because he feels like the Gems don't trust him enough to actually challenge him.
  • In Carmen Sandiego, the titular protagonist believes the final exam from Stealth 101's teacher Shadowsan (Which happens offscreen) to be this, since she, the best pickpocketer from the class, couldn't find the item she was supposed to steal. In the season finale, Carmen finds out that she was right. Shadowsan rigged the test to give her the motivation to leave.

    Other 
  • A prank puzzle called "The Inescapable Island". The teller begins with "imagine that you are stranded on a tiny little island", then goes on to describe with detail how the surrounding sea is vast and borderless and filled with hungry sharks and how the island is a bare spot of sand with thousands of poisonous scorpions and this and that. Once the situation is inescapable enough, the teller then asks the victim to find out a way to save themself. The only acceptable solution is along the lines of "stop imagining".
  • There's an old joke about a trainee sailor asked how he'd deal with a series of increasingly severe incoming storms; in each case, he answers that he lowers another anchor. When finally asked "Where are you getting all your anchors?" he replies "Same place you're getting all your storms."
  • Parodied in the Gamebook Trial Of The Clone, where the silent protagonist may be faced with a Kobayashi Maru Expy. You may attempt to honestly face the test which ends the game, shoot a random person instead thus setting you back or cheat in the most ridiculously, stupidly obvious way possible.
  • The Tropeless Tale. Ever gotten so fed up with cliches that you want to experience a work with no tropes? It's not quite that simple.

    Real Life 
  • US Navy and Coast Guard ships periodically undergo a 2-week long evaluation period where the crew completes various drills to simulate a whole range of routine and emergency scenarios. The "final exam" drill is designed to be impossible to pass. No matter how well the crew performs, the situation just keeps getting worse and worse until an abandon ship order has to be given. The idea is to see how long the crew can hold out in a worst-case scenario where there's no possible way to save the ship. Unlike many other examples of this trope, it serves a purpose beyond "see how they handle failure": keeping a dying ship afloat as long as possible gives the crew the best possible chance for a timely rescue and (hopefully) minimizes the loss of life.
  • Part of a typical NASA Astronaut's Training from Hell involves dealing with emergencies in a simulator, though in this case the scenarios used have obscure or complicated solutions, as opposed to no solution at all. The idea here is training the astronauts in Olympic-standard mental gymnastics rather than training them to face death stoically. The latter is part of the job description anyway.
    • In the early days of Gemini and Apollo, NASA initially had a specific rule against these sorts of training situations, thinking that it would hurt morale to no avail if there was no actual answer. After Apollo 13, it was realized that the situation faced by the crew would have been rejected as impossible. Since that time, this rule was removed, and several unwinnable scenarios have actually been beaten by creativity and ingenuity.
    • A released audio segment depicting the training for the Space Shuttle's earliest available abort mode, RTLS (Return To Launch Site), was this. Engine 1 (the center engine) failed approximately 30 seconds after liftoff. The trainers were sporting enough to wait until after the shuttle had gotten some return velocity to Kennedy Space Center (but not enough) before killing Engine 2 (the starboard engine) - mostly because the Shuttle's response to losing two engines during the powered pitch-around maneuver would be to drop directly into the Atlantic Ocean. Engine 3 died shortly before fuel exhaustion, leaving a contingency abort (essentially, ditching the shuttle as close to land as possible and abandoning ship via the mid-deck) the only remaining option. It's easy to tell why the astronauts who flew the Shuttle never, ever wanted to actually use the RTLS abort in a mission (fortunately, the only abort mode ever used was abort-to-orbit, used on Challenger's 8th mission).
  • Various training simulations for prospective pilots involve the instructor randomly turning things off in order to simulate piloting a heavily damaged or malfunctioning plane. If the instructor so wishes, he can "break" so many of the plane's functions that all the pilot can hope for is a crash landing with a slim possibility of passenger survival. The latter is almost never done in simulator training, however, as the possibility is remote and simulator time is expensive. Training simulations typically have one failure occur at a time - which, depending on your view, leaves pilots woefully underprepared for a worst-case, real-world cascading failure scenario. Captain Sullenberger, who landed the Miracle on the Hudson, gives his take.
  • A similar thing is occasionally done in military exercises — the exercise coordinator might at one point say: "Blue Team, your SAMs no longer work", or "OpFor, your fuel dump has been destroyed," so as to train participants to adapt when plans fall apart.
    • The same thing occurs during command training exercises for civilian disaster response: it's typical for the organizers to arbitrarily declare that a given response has failed in order to make the situation worse, or that another situation has sprung up while the agency which would normally deal with it is fully occupied with the first incident.
    • And if all else fails, point to the guy making all the decisions and say "You're dead," then point to the next guy and say "So what do you do?"
  • Training for EMTs and ER personnel often forces them to deal with training scenarios where they have to save a patient and everything going wrong and the patient dying on them, or they do everything correctly and the patient still dies. The entire point of the scenarios is to drive home the fact that they will eventually fail to save a patient and that some of the reasons are outside of their control, but they still have to try.
  • A fairly common practice after a particularly notable air disaster involving some kind of failure of the aircraft is to program a simulator with the scenario, put experienced pilots in the cockpit, and see if there was anything at all that could have been done. Even if the test pilots know what's coming, it's not unusual for it to be demonstrated to be utterly impossible to have saved the aircraft. In cases of near disaster, running the simulation often shows how ridiculously lucky and/or skilled the original pilots were to have pulled off what they did.
  • A standard feature for Game Show contestant tryouts. For example, on Double Dare (1986), contestant duos would be asked trivia questions and then told an answer given was wrong. This was done to see what sort of reaction happened, such as if the contestants argued with each other or disputed the answer being wrong. The producers of Double Dare wanted to make sure they had contestants who worked together as teams and were good sports.
  • Zig-zagged in the most awful way during the US military's Millenium Challenge 2002 war game. The goal was to demonstrate and test new military technologies in a simulated Persian gulf war situation, especially relevant given the year. The official factions were merely Red and Blue, with Blue being the USA and Red being either Iraq or Iran. Red Team was commanded by Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper, and was expected to lose for a multitude of reasons, including tech and manpower. Riper proceeded to use motorcycle messengers and light signals to operate off the grid of all the new fangled tech, leaving Blue unable to anticipate their movements. Blue demanded their surrender as a show of force, with a 24 hour time limit. This allowed Riper to also know when they were to be attacked, so he ordered a pre-emptive cruise missile strike that, were it real, would have had a death toll of over 20,000 troops. This also shut down their electronics and "sunk" numerous ships, including one aircraft carrier and ten cruisers. Most of what was left of Blue's Navy was then sunk by a wave of "suicide bombers". Then the military suspended the exercise, reset it, put a ton of artificial rules in about what Riper was and wasn't allowed to do and even required him to give them intel on Red's forces, forbid him from using some weapons and required them to not attack at certain times. The "training exercise" as the military put it was nothing more than security theater, absolute pageantry for the display of new tech, rather than anything for actual training, despite that most assuredly not being what it was meant to be. Given a no-win situation, Riper won. Embarrassed that old fashioned tactics could easily humiliate their new tech, they forced it from "unlikely" to "impossible" so they could get the desired result. Of course, history would show that unlike in the wargame, they couldn't do that in the actual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Asymmetrical warfare was shown to be a significant threat and going low tech could beat high tech, something they could have adapted to and planned for if not for the pride of certain individuals making them refuse to accept their no-win situation had been beat, which got many people killed in the long run.


Alternative Title(s): Disastrous Training Sim Opening, Kobayashi Maru, The Kobayashi Maru, The No Win Scenario

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