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"CURSE IT! I curse our uselessness!"
Piccolo, Dragonball Z Cell saga-era

Due to the Sorting Algorithm of Evil, many series have a habit of making it Time to Unlock More True Potential for their characters. However, this doesn't happen uniformly; the main characters gain their powers near-instantly followed by whichever secondary characters are the most popular with the audience, and then, sometimes, the rest of them. This can result in a situation where a character who was introduced as the hero's equal can slip further and further behind in the power rankings, to the point where they can't even help out against the Monster of the Week, because that level of power? So Last Season.

Something similar often happens in video games with Character Levels and more usable characters than the Arbitrary Headcount Limit will allow, but no Leaked Experience. Even if the designers go out of their way to make each character relevant in some meaningful way, some will still fall into a lower Character Tiers, meaning they will spend less time in the active party and, as a consequence, be much weaker than the party's main heavy hitters. This can become a vicious circle - because the weaker characters are often left out of the party, they fall further behind, and as a result are even less likely to be included.

Designers occasionally like to punish players for this sort of behavior by throwing in a Plot Tailored to the Party, but in those cases will often structure experience gain so that a weak character can be brought up to a level comparable to the main party fairly quickly.

Can result in We Are Team Cannon Fodder, and is the flip side of Villain Decay. Compare to Redemption Demotion, where ex-villains immediately start to suck rather than slowly going through a process.

See also Spotlight-Stealing Squad.

For the video game version of this, wherein a character gets vastly stronger than other playable characters, see One Man Party.

Examples of Can't Catch Up include:

Anime and Manga

  • Half the cast of Dragon Ball Z, notably anyone not a Saiyan or a half-Saiyan ended up like this. There was even a subplot where the reformed Vegeta was aware this had happened to him, and was willing to make a Face Heel Turn so he could catch up to his eternal rival.
    • And this was before Goku revealed the third stage of Super Saiyan—Vegeta was too late, and he knows it by the end of Z.
    • Yajirobe suffered from the worst case of this ever. When he's introduced he appears to be on par with Goku, and quickly defeated Cymbol, one of the spawn of Demon King Piccolo, by slicing him in half, and then ate him. After that he's mostly worthless, and the only significant thing he did was cut off Great Ape Vegeta's tail to weaken him, nine years later in-universe. Of course, he appears even more interested in food than Goku, but without the training ethic.
    • Similar to the above, Yamcha, and Chiaotzu pretty much become this to almost ridiculous levels. Yamcha didn't even get a shot at Nappa because a Saibaman took him out in only one hit (Which the Abridged Series made fun of and the Japanese turned it into Memetic Mutation), while Chiaotzu and Tien's Heroic Sacrifices didn't even so much as put a scratch on Nappa. After that point...they pretty much couldn't do a thing, spending the next hundred or so episodes on King Kai's planet.
      • However, Tien and Chiaotzu actually did show up in the Majin Buu Saga. They were one of the few people to survive the Human Extinction Attack, never got eaten by Majin Buu, and Tien actually helped out a bit...even though once more, he could only serve as a distraction at that point.
    • Tien suffers from this as well. Tien also had another moment of usefulness, stalling Cell's second form for quite some time. While Tien does prove useful in most of his fights he quickly falls behind after the Saiyan Saga and only keeps his usefuleness by using his "hax" techniques.
    • Piccolo (Junior) managed to somewhat evade this trope by staying relevant all the way up to the Cell Saga despite not being a Saiyan. He still contributed to battles by defeating Dr. Gero and later on, combining with Kami to trade blows with both Android 17 and Cell in his first form. It's only afterwords that he became a jaded babysitter for Trunks and Goten during the Buu Saga, never again to regain his former glory.
    • Krillin "suffered" from this, but it actually helped make him one of the more endearing characters in the series—when push came to shove, he would show surprising heart and bravery by jumping into fights he knew he had essentially no chance of winning.

 Krillin: Can't I get in one good hit???

        • Also, there's Master Roshi. He was initially stated as being the most powerful person in the world at the start of Dragonball, but by the end of the Demon Piccolo saga, he is completely worthless and never does anything again EVER.
    • Heck, you can say Goku himself also gets hit by it, as, while he is leagues ahead of pretty much the entire universe, Gotenks and Gohan were leagues ahead of him, respectively being on par with and effortlessly throwing around an opponent Goku was afraid to fight. In his defense (and Vegeta's), Gohan is so far behind Vegetto or Gogeta it isn't even funny.
        • Interestingly, even series arc Big Bads weren't immune to this. Frieza, Cell, and Majin Buu all repeatedly found themselves severely outclassed by the heroes and needed a new transformation just to get back up on top.
    • This is carried over into The Abridged Series, where it's Played for Laughs. See the quotes page.
  • For that matter, it continues in Dragon Ball GT, where the worthlessness even spreads to most of the Saiyans as well, or more precisely, anyone and everyone who isn't fortunate enough to be named Goku! In Z, the Saiyans were the only ones who could really stand up to the enemies who showed up later on. In GT, well, unless you're Goku or Vegeta...don't expect to be anything more than a distraction or easy kill. Goten, Trunks, and Gohan were utter wimps compared to how badass they were in Z.
    • Vegeta takes a level in badass to redeem himself near the end, but not for long.
    • Poor Uub/Majuub really got screwed over...Goku trained him as a successor originally, as the reincarnation of Kid Buu. So obviously he's way more powerful...only to be pretty much absent for the first saga. Then comes the Baby Saga...where all he really does is hold off Baby Vegeta, even after gaining the powers of the good Majin Buu.
    • And let's not even talk of the Shadow Dragon Saga, where all he does is scream loudly for a few seconds before going down in one shot.
    • Bra could potentially become pretty dang powerful, but she doesn't really have any interest in it. Word of God states that She and Pan actually could become Super Saiyans, but Toriyama didn't think about how he could make it work on females.
    • Super Saiyan 4 Gogeta deserves special mention for taking this Up to Eleven. Not only does he utterly reduce the Big Bad to a complete joke while fooling around, but at this point even the viewers can't see any of his moves at all! Think about that...
  • Many Regulars in Tower of God have the problem that they are overshadowed by Baam, Androssi, Koon, Anak, Laure, Rak and Hatsu (amongst others), with varying approaches, Ship Leesoo does his best to be a part of the team and becomes somewhat a caretaker of Anak, whereas Ho tries to kill Lahel to stop Baam from climbing the Tower, as he is a fellow Wave Manipulator and therefore a direct rival. When Baam rescues her and proves that he is indeed a genius, Ho loses all hope to reach the top, and drowns his sorrow with suicide.
  • Almost nobody other than Ranma and Ryoga ever appears to improve their skills over the seven seasons and thirty-eight volumes of Ranma ½, which leads rather well into Overshadowed by Awesome. One anime OAV has Nabiki heavily implying that the reason Akane can't catch up is because she's basically given up on upgrading her training regime due to Ranma always taking her battles on for her. Of course, Ranma and Ryoga are the only ones who train near-constantly and who get involved in battles the most (everyone else in the series tends to have other things to do that get in the way of training), so it's partially justified that Ranma and Ryoga are the only two who make any serious progress in their martial arts abilities.
    • Because Ryoga is officially The Rival to Ranma, some actually view him as this, though the series itself makes it quite clear that Ranma and Ryoga are always spurring each other on to greater heights and so the one of them who is "better" keeps seesawing. Ranma beats Ryoga who comes back and beats Ranma who then comes back and beats Ryoga again, on and on throughout the entirety of the series. This belief most likely stems from the fact that Ranma is usually the one shown as having "the last laugh" in their battles in any particular story, and the fact that the flashbacks from Ryoga's introductory story all depict young!Ranma implicitly curbstomping young!Ryoga.
  • Caren, Noel and Coco of Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch.
  • This is practically part of the first major story arc in Bleach. As the main character Ichigo seems to gain power exponentially, his comrades start to feel (or continue to be) useless.
    • It turns out that the reason Orihime and Chad developed powers in the first place was because the Hougyoku sensed their feelings of powerlessness and unleashed their true potential.
    • Chad even becomes aware of it when Ichigo has to tell him to run away from a fight. He knows his friend is just trying to help, but it hurts him so much that he goes through Training From Hell to get better. He's still not as powerful as Ichigo, but he's not useless anymore. He managed to beat one of the Privaron Espada.
    • And then get his ass kicked by a real Espada no less than five minutes later. Poor Chad can never get a break.
    • Of course Renji and Uryu, who were both introduced as The Rival to Ichigo, have also suffered from this trope as time went on. While, unlike Chad, they still have decent showings in Filler Arc, they honestly fared no better than Chad during the Hueco Mundo arc.
      • Rukia defeated the 9th Espada and the Arrancar version of the stealth corps, while Renji was probably only unable to defeat the 8th Espada because he was using SCIENCE! so they fare a little better.
      • Heck, even the villains are noticing this. Ginjo said out loud to Uryu that he could attack him during his villain-speech and it wouldn't do anything. Which is particularly jarring, as the rest of that arc seems to be showing that during the time skip everyone but him almost caught up. *Sigh* from rival to Butt Monkey in two apperances, is that a record?
    • If we judge the fighting in the Arrancar arc though, Ulquiorra was almost miles ahead of everyone else, faring better than his other Arrancars and won all but two of his battles, and even got better than Aizen who spent half of his battle screwing around. On a certain standpoint, the only reason Ulquiorra even lost was because of trickery by his enemies, whatever we can call the revival of his dead foes, and falling to pride like most Bleach villains do.
  • Twisted in the second season of Sailor Moon (Sailor Moon R), where Sailor Moon was the last of the Senshi to receive that season's Big Power Up. Played straight for the rest of the series, where Usagi continues to receive upgrade after upgrade that sets her far and above the rest of her teammates.
    • Well, she is The Messiah.
    • Although this is only because the Inner Senshi never got their S-season upgrades in the anime, and nobody else got their Eternal upgrades...
  • Lampshaded in One Piece, where the most recent story arcs have the more human characters (Usopp in particular) worried that they might become totally useless compared to the monstrous, inhuman strength of the other crew members.
    • Usopp is practically the poster boy; The writer himself admits that Usopp will always be the least powerful member of the crew no matter what, because he tries to keep him at a level where the reader would be able to relate to him. He does behave pretty realistically for someone under the employment of Monkey D Luffy, one of the strongest pirates in the world, and who, as far as traditional pirate vessels work, should outrank Sanji, another one of the strongest pirates in the world.
    • Nami's worry that she Can't Catch Up to the rest of the crew leads her to ask Usopp to develop the Clima Tact for her.
    • Part of the reason for the Time Skip was to at least give the weaker cast members 2 years to catch up.
    • This is one reason (among other more important ones) why Vivi ultimately decided not to travel with her crew full-time, as well.
  • Yu Yu Hakusho, after the Dark Tournament, got to the point where even the main character couldn't catch up. It took a rather Deus Ex Machina plot twist to power Yuusuke up enough to beat Sensui, and after that, even with a solid year of training, he still had very little chance against the antagonists of the last story arc.
    • It was even worse than that. Even though he gained the power to win, he was still only exchanging blows with Sensui. Raizen, his very powerful demon ancestor who hadn't been mentioned at that point in the story, actually had to take control of his body and finish off Sensui because of Yusuke's inexperience with his own power.That's right, it took two Deus Ex Machina's in a row to ensure that the The Hero himself could stayed relevant in his own series.
  • Digimon has a history of introducing a member of the main cast who would obviously be stronger than the rest if they could keep up with the Evolutionary Levels. The first was Bun in C Mon Digimon who lost all the time because of it. Then Patamon in Digimon Adventure but he did better than Bun. Patamon again in Digimon Adventure 02, despite getting the Worf Effect it's clear his Fusion Dance was the best before it fell behind by two upgrades. The Warriors of Darkness in Digimon Frontier could outperform everyone else even outside of their element until the leads got upgrades and left them behind. Agumon X in D-Cyber fell behind in the evolution race despite having the most skilled tamer.
    • Frontier was ESPECIALLY bad about this. At least in the other seasons, the remaining characters outside the The Hero and The Lancer could still fight and defend themselves, and were at most usually only one evolutionary level beneath them, rather than reducing them to useless bystanders.
    • It looks to go this way in Digimon V-Tamer 01, Digimon Next and Digimon Savers/Data Squad but they subvert it. Digimon Tamers averts this particular trend but could still be argued to have a couple cases of not catching up.
    • The way Digimon works is that even the LEVELS can never catch up to higher ones. If you're the same level, chances look even, but if you're lower or higher, the stronger level always wins, even if facing vast quantities. One particular example is the introduction of the Dark Masters effortlessly curbstomping them in succession: Metalseadramon blasted through EIGHT CHAMPIONS (two levels below his own Mega) while their attacks did nothing, and Machinedramon and Puppetmon easily crushed down SEVEN ULTIMATES (which is only ONE LEVEL BELOW MEGA). To add insult to injury, Piedmon took down both Megas (and he was one too).
      • Except the aforementioned Patamon (or evolutions). To wit, Angemon (champion) is the only hero capable of getting Vamdemon (ultimate) fighting seriously - and this was after Vamdemon was done curbstomping the other 6 ultimates. Sure, he didn't land the finishing blow, but it's still a bit galling. And, let's not forget he was instrumental in the defeat of each big bad other than Etemon (curb stomped devimon, empowered the two "main" digimon to be able to go mega, beat Piedmon singlehandedly after he's slaughtered everyone else).
    • Another was Blackwargreymon (Mega) facing off 20 control-spire-made Mammothmon (All Ultimate). Guess who won?
      • Though when Patamon got a limited time digivolution back to MagnaAngemon (ultimate) he started curb stomping Blackwargraymon until the latter broke the plot device letting him digivolve.
  • In The Prince of Tennis, the Fudomine and Rokkaku teams are good, but are pretty much doomed to be in the shadow of Seigaku, Rikkai and Hyoutei.
  • In Vagabond, Hon'iden Matahachi chases Miyamoto Musashi's shadow, since they were childhood friends separated soon after the Battle of Sekigahara.
  • Often springs up in Gundam... and often associated with the Faux Action Girl of the series in question. Sayla in the original is one example.
  • Most of Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple's allies felt this way after Ragnarok's defeat and redoubled their efforts to catch up and, later, participate in the Desperate Fight Of Disciples tournament. Of them all, however, Kouzou Ukita takes the prize because he neglected to consider the benefits of Training From Hell and went into the tournament nowhere near the level of everyone else.
  • Of most the Wacky Homeroom in Mahou Sensei Negima, many of them had some form of Charles Atlas Superpower, till the members of the Ala Alba went through Training From Hell, leaving the rest as a liability when several of them enter the Magic World.
    • Ayaka in particular, who was more or less evenly matched with Asuna at the start of the series, recently attempted to fight her again, and Asuna utterly kicked her butt without much trouble.
    • Anya also suffers horribly from this. When she arrives in Japan she intends to show Negi how far she's progressed, only to find out that he's waaaayyy ahead of her.
  • Naruto:
    • Sakura is quickly eclipsed by her teammates who have natural talent and get dedicated teachers. It gets a bit better when she gets her own teacher.
    • Many of the side characters of Naruto are eclipsed by Team 7 in the Shippuden Portion of the Series, to such an extent where even Kakashi starts to be included in this throughout the latter and more current day part. Kakashi himself admitted that Naruto may have surpassed him.
    • Ino is an especially noticeable case of Can't Catch Up. She quickly falls behind when the flaws in her Mind Transfer Jutsu are exposed and she doesn't develop any other offensive techniques. She realizes this is a problem and tries to remedy this by learning medical ninjutsu at the end of the Part I fillers, but it's clear that she's nowhere near Sakura's ability. One filler arc has her feeling like The Load as a result of having the weakest chakra control on a sealing team. However, in the Fourth Ninja World War arc, she improved her Mind Transfer Jutsu to the point where it's useful in significant battles without leaving her super-vulnerable.
    • The reason behind Sasuke's initial defection was because he felt Naruto could catch up, and indeed may have surpassed him already. This was fueled by Sasuke getting worfed in several battles which Naruto's brute strength was far better suited to dealing with.
  • Aoki and Kimura of Hajime no Ippo.
    • Though Akoki and Kimura was never, at any point, at the same level as the main fighters.
  • Imori, Amori, and Umori are a team of relatively weak minor villains from Hunter X Hunter who are defeated by Killua. Later in the series, they immediately quit the Hunter Exam after the entire room is knocked out within minutes by said Killua, who advanced insanely in power over the course of a few arcs.
  • Acknowledged and mildly deconstructed in Fresh Pretty Cure. Long after Love and Inori have gotten their Cure Sticks, Miki (Cure Berry) is still stuck using her decreasingly effective starting attack, which nearly costs the girls a battle. She spends the following episode desperately trying to invoke the Mid-Season Upgrade trope.
  • Mildly subverted in Dai no Daibouken. While it's true that Dai's friends can't catch up with him in terms of battle prowess, if it weren't for them he would have died every single time he battled powerful foes. Also, Dai's friends rarely get to sit back and watch as there are enemies that they have to fight while Dai is busy duking it out with the most powerful one, and Dai's friends regularly go through harsh trainings which pay off significantly.
  • Colonel Dasten in The Big O has himself and the entire Military Police as this. He's actually expressed frustration several times that they can't do anything without Roger's help.
  • Lucy of Fairy Tail: Even though the series is flooding with badass, there just doesn't seem to be enough for her. Ironically, Lucy is the only member of the cast who consistently gets more powerful by getting more Stellar Spirits. It's just that everyone started out so far above her that they rarely need to get more powerful.
  • The initially powerful character of Pop in Ojamajo Doremi takes four seasons to reach what for the rest of the cast was a second-season power level. Her problem is that all the magical training in the series is done at night, and she can't stay awake long past dark. Justified in that she's five years old in the first season.
  • A lot of racers in Future GPX Cyber Formula became less and less powerful racers as the series progresses, especially Randoll and Shinjyo, while Kaga became the only racer powerful enough to challenge Hayato.
    • Ironically, this is balanced by the fact that Asurada can't catch up him(it?)self, because Hayato's team couldn't afford constant development of racing technology. Hayato suffer repeated loses onscreen and offscreen.
  • Nana in Elfen Lied. Each time she has a major fight, she actually has a strategy and makes a good showing—and each time she gets her little ass kicked in a major way, usually because she severely underestimates the viciousness of her opponents. Lucy literally cuts her to pieces, despite being overwhelmed by Nana's vectors on more than one occasion; Mariko plays with her unmercifully, till she makes the ironic mistake of taunting Nana about killing Kurama; She shocks the dandy-ish Nousou with her speed when Maple House is invaded, but the Mariko clones are like a steel wall to her; Even when facing only one of them, and after repeatedly getting the drop on her, Nana finds that her opponent has taken the time to take her 'Papa' Kurama hostage, leading to another severe, if truncated, beatdown.
  • Everybody in Rurouni Kenshin who isn't the titular hero start the series behind (excepting The Rival Saitou), and never, ever catch up despite gaining level(s) in badass.
    • However, when Kenshin's mentor Seijuro Hiko shows up, even Saitou and Kenshin are outclassed. It's stated that Kenshin will never catch up, because his body just doesn't possess the raw physical strength to use the Hiten Mitsurugi style to its fullest.
  • Yukimitsu from Eyeshield 21 went through this, and for good reason. He had never played American football (or any sport) before, had never been involved in a single play, and despite going through the Death March, was still declined as a starting player. In the end, though, while he was far from the most athletic Devil Bat, he turned out to be the smartest and easily one of the most dedicated members.
  • Kawachi in Yakitate!! Japan was never as innately talented as Azuma, but in the first half of the series he made up for it with hard work and still managed to hold his own. Then, ironically after undergoing a bout of special training, he descended into the realm of joke character, and in the final story arc was deemed so worthless that he was stuck in the audience watching his supposed teammates do all the work.
  • Medaka Box: Many of the other protagonists start out behind Medaka, including Zenkichi. Akune and Kikaijima get their moments, but aren't able to catch up for most of the Minus arc. Former enemies get their asses handed them by newer villains.



  • Jesus, dudes. The guy is God incarnate and the best his disciples can do is heal in his name.
  • Part of Pumpkin's jealousy of Sayuri in Memoirs of a Geisha had to do with the fact that Sayuri, despite starting later than her, became a very much more successful and popular geisha than her and earned more money than any other geisha.

Live Action TV

  • All Heisei Kamen Rider series see the main Rider get some power upgrade. Occasionally some of the other Riders do, too, but usually later and less powerful.
    • Reversed in Kamen Rider Ryuki, though, where Knight is the first to gain his "Survive Form" and Ryuki does not get his until several episodes later.
    • In Kamen Rider Blade this even becomes a vital plot point. Kamen Rider Leangle, who is basically high school student possessed by an evil being, debuted as the strongest Rider. But he watched in envy as the others gained more powerful forms with him staying behind. He got his hands on a transformation device and attempted to use it. Sadly, he did not transform. But the failed transformation did result in being freed from the evil being that controlled him. Afterwards, he was still powerful enough in just his default form to keep up to some degree, proving his Ace form actually was the strongest of the four.
  • Lampshade Hanging by Xander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who lamented that, while everyone around him became increasingly powerful, he was becoming useless unless the problem required fixing a broken wall. Admittedly, he became something of a Badass Normal as his fighting skills improved throughout the series, though never to the extent of Giles. In fact, as his magically-granted "Army Guy" abilities faded out, he became for a time less competent with weapons. It didn't really help either that by the time he had become Badass Normal the Big Bads were entities far more powerful than any mere vampire or bush league minor demon which were basically the cap on what even an exceptionally strong and well trained human could ever kill.
  • Happened for a while in season 2 of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to Tommy. With a failed Dragon Coin, no Zord upgrade was possible for the Dragon Zord. The others had to wait several more episodes before their friend could catch up, with a tease of him being gone forever. And then...

Video Games

  • This can happen in video games easily, without intentional effort. One example is Final Fantasy VII's Cloud having the main Hero slot, and Vincent, or other mostly-nonstory characters, remaining out of the loop and not developing. Games that wish to avert this usually involve situations where specific characters are required (or where the party must be split), thus encouraging players to make an effort to use all of their characters.
  • Chrono Trigger averts this with Leaked Experience for all non-active party members.
  • It's practically a genre-trait to invoke in most Mo BA games.
  • Pokémon can fall prey to this. It is somewhat common (though usually with younger players) for people to rely on only one or two Pokémon in the whole game and leave everyone else in the dust, or not even bothering to carry extras around. This works to an extent, as using less Pokémon means that the few you are using will level further and faster than a larger team, and the stragglers can serve as meat shields if you need to heal up your main Mons mid-battle, but this game plan can fall apart very easily if you encounter an opponent whose abilities are just right to Curb Stomp the one Pokémon you were dependent on. Starting in Pokémon Black and White, the experience gain formula was changed to discourage this. Then in XY, the EXP Share was reconfigured to prevent this; turning it on let you level your whole party at once. (Though it could also be turned off to get a latecomer caught up, especially if you gave them the free Lucky Egg.)
  • Quite a few Final Fantasy games fall prey to this, mainly due to their outdated "no battle, no experience points" policy for characters not in your active battle party. As one example, Final Fantasy IX had Steiner, whose underwhelming abilities didn't help the fact that once you get him back after a long absence, he's something like ten levels behind (particularly annoying, as he has one of the better Story Arcs, though he does get the experience-boosting 'Level Up' ability early on which makes leveling him up less painful). This can also happen in Final Fantasy XII if you choose to keep three of the six available characters in your active party at all times.
    • Final Fantasy IX has a similar problem with Freya. While her action abilities are better than Steiner's, (albeit some of her best ones are based upon a variable) she is placed outside of the party along with Steiner. Once you finally have the option of putting her back in the party, she may be very far behind and some would prefer to stick with Amarant, who also has far more story events regarding him in the second half of the game than Freya does. Until of course, you are forced to use her either Oelivert (Which is actually a good place to level a character like her or Steiner up) or Desert Palace.
      • This, combined with her subplot stopping extremely abruptly at this point, gives the distinct impression that the game designers totally forgot that she existed.
        • This was also the central problem with Kimahri in Final Fantasy X. Because he essentially has no sphere grid of his own he has to hijack the grids of the other characters. The problem is that the other characters are so well suited to their grids that most players will find very little need for Kimarhi beyond Kilika, usually causing his progression around the sphere grid to grind to a halt. Even his Overdrives are unremarkable compared to the other characters; fully maxed out Kimarhi can cast Nova for a few thousand points... whilst Wakka will one shot nearly every enemy in the game.
          • Kimarhi also suffers because the majority of random encounters revolve around one character being able to usually be able to one hit kill a specific type of enemy, while every other character is going to be far less effective against it. Yuna doesn't suffer from this because her role as a healer and summoner does give her a substantial use in combat other than one hit killing an enemy type. There is no real point to swapping Kimarhi into battle, since any enemy that isn't part of the one hit kill puzzle battle dynamic can just as easily be handled by anyone else. Of course, on the upside the way the experience system works, there's no reason NOT to switch him in either.
  • Another such example is Valkyrie Profile Lenneth, where the titular Valkyrie must always be in your party. Since you have a couple dozen other characters to recruit and train, this means by the end of the game, she may be up to 10 levels higher than the next closest warrior.
    • More so because you're expected to, every so often (more often than you'd like if you want the best ending) kill off one of your characters. You're rewarded with an item that boosts the stats of a second character based on how high a level the one you killed off was, and the best ending and bonus dungeon requires a fairly high total minimum level of all your sacrifices.
    • Not quite an example per se, since level is very unimportant outside really gigantic (20+) level differences. At the end of the game, especially in the Bonus Dungeon, stats are pretty much arbitrary. No matter what level you are, bosses and going to one or two hit kill you and almost all of your damage comes from your weapon stats. Many enemies can also be one or two hit killed by a level 1 character with the appropriate Killer weapon.
    • It's true to a much smaller extent in Covenant of the Plume, where the player can choose to keep the "A team" throughout the game and not sacrifice them, but eased somewhat in that if you don't sacrifice anyone, the plot path gives you fewer characters to begin with.
  • In Tales of Phantasia, the main male (Cless) and female (Mint) characters are sent to the past, leaving behind Cless's playable buddy Chester. After recruiting new characters and acquiring many levels, the party is sent back to the present, where one of the new characters laments that Chester is now too weak (being something like 30 levels behind) to go along with the party.
    • However, the trope is averted, because as soon as he rejoins the party, Chester gains levels quickly. Also, the PSX, GBA, and PSP adaptations all added in cutscenes to kick Chester up thirty or forty levels after you get him back. Oh, and he gets actual techniques in those versions, including the ultimate arrow Toryuu (Dragon Slayer) - in the original, he's nothing but brute support.
    • It should also be noted that, even in the original, he is by far the most damaging physical attacker in the game with his best weapons and a little leveling, making him potentially better than one of the spellcasters (although it's more a matter of taste). He also gains levels much faster than the other characters.
  • In the Playstation version of Persona, experience is awarded based on the game's arbitrary and seemingly random perception of the character's usefulness in that battle. In other words, the strong get more experience and become stronger, while the weak get less experience and continue to lag behind.
  • This VERY easily happens in the Playstation2 game Dark Cloud for numerous reasons. One is the fact that it uses a "No battle no experience" rule (Can be subverted by switching the character out with a weaker one when the experience points are dropped, however) and the fact that the number of weapons available to some characters clearly indicates that the developers favour Toan and Ruby. (Plus the Broken Dagger Glitch)
    • It happens very quickly due to Character Tiers. Clearly, Toan and Ruby are the best characters as they can get strong weapons easily and have the most weapons available. Toan is also able to get a VERY strong weapon by the third dungeon in the game so clearly he would be the main character people would use while everyone else Can't Catch Up.
      • Ungaga and Osmond are also obviously middle-tier characters in those games. They can actually be pretty good if a player invests time into building up to their ultimate weapons and uses their playstyles effectively, but the main problem is that by the time they become playable, the player is a pretty far ways into the game and, considering you can get a near ultimate weapon early in the game when you know the evolutions of the swords and how to build them up, they just wind up being underpowered.
      • And clearly Xiao and poor Goro wind up the weakest characters due to the fact that they can only attack once and they are so vulnerable to retaliation or attack when trying to line it up it's just not worth using them as a primary attacker. Goro suffers the most, since even when locked onto enemies his attacks can still miss and he can't combo like everyone else can. Plus their weapons just aren't that great and many players let them fall behind while Toan and Ruby clean the dungeons up.
  • In the RPG Baldurs Gate 2, one random party conversation involves your sister Imoen taunting lawful evil mage Edwin about the fact that "-everyone else is finding destinies and prophesies and generally surpassing you in every way." This eventually leads to a subversion—Edwin is by far the most powerful playable mage, with the possible exception of the protagonist himself.
    • Interestingly, the trope applies much more directly to Imoen herself, because she gets captured very early on. If the player does not rush immediately to her aid, the rest of the party will have surpassed her by the time she rejoins.
    • It should also be noted that if you * do* take the time to bring Imoen up to the rest of the group's standards, she'll easily equal Edwin.
  • Mostly averted in Dragon Age due to Leaked Experience, but during the Fade sequence the Warden finds a whole host of stat-boost items that make him/her significantly more powerful, and Dog never really catches up to the humanoid party members after the first few hours of the game.
    • Sten is a subtler example. While his stats and talents are the same as any other warrior could have, he doesn't have a Specialization to start out with. Every other humanoid companion starts with one Specialization and learns another; Sten can only access the 'second' one. He falls behind Alistair and Oghren quite quickly.
      • Sten still serves a good purpose throughout the better part of the game as a damage-dealing, alternate-tanking warrior (whereas Alistair is a primary tank, barring a tanking Warden). Put him in massive armor and give him a good weapon and he can tank when the main tank goes down (though not as well, as he's built around Two-Handed Weapons), and still dish out high damage. Oghren is meant to be a late-game acquisition (barring Sequence Breaking), so you'll wind up using Sten in this role until Orzammar.
      • He still doesn't serve a purpose. You get Alistair so early, that you can easily make him a damage dealer if desired. You basically lose two power selections, which isn't going to make a difference in the long run. Even if you decide Templar is totally useless for a damage dealer (it isn't), Alistair would still gets a second specialization. There is no way for Sten to keep up with Alistair as a damage dealer in any case. This also ignores that tanking is useless in Dragon Age: Origins, so alternate tanking isn't a useful role. Rogues have hate control and massive evasion even without dexterity focused builds. Mages are even better tanks than Warriors. The only time you ever need a "tank" is against bosses with instant kill grab attacks. However, these are best tanked by Shale, who is outright immune to these attacks.
  • Note that RPG video games usually counter this using Leaked Experience.
    • Persona 3 and 4 take a different approach in that rather than using Leaked Experience they award experience based on the relative level of them to the monsters you kill, meaning that a character who is ten or fifteen levels behind the rest of the party as well as the monsters you're fighting will likely gain 1-2 levels per battle until they've caught up.
      • Ditto for the Suikoden games. In fact, a severely-lagging character may level up so much from the level-difference bonus that they end up surpassing the rest of the party.
    • Even when using Leaked Experience, there are quite a few RPGs wherein the main character can never be switched out of the party, which means that even if you keep all your party members in active rotation, the main character will always end up ten or fifteen levels ahead of everybody else by the end of the game. Xenogears, Legend of Dragoon, and the above-mentioned Final Fantasy VII all fall victim to this.
  • After the first ranger mission in Breath of Fire 2, your best buddy Bow gets falsely accused of burglary, and has to go into hiding while you search the world for the real perp. Once you finally get his name cleared and he can rejoin, he'll be far behind. He does require lower experience to level than other characters at this point to make up for it, but whether it is enough is debatable.
  • In Earthbound, Ness gains 200,000 EXP at once after a certain story event, along with the most powerful attack in the game and massive stat boosts, putting him miles ahead of everyone else. Of course, since he was the only party member you had for the first two or three hours of the game, he probably already was to begin with.
    • Even moreso, the place where he gains 200,000 EXP is his own "personal dungeon," where he's been fighting end-game monsters solo for about an hour. He was overpowered entering that world, but the combined experience from all of it makes him unbalanced.
      • Hilariously enough, it's Paula and the player, not Ness, who are instrumental to defeating the final boss, despite Ness's ridiculously high stats.
    • Poor Poo gets hit with this especially hard, since he joins rather late and slightly underlevelled, and he proceeds to leave for not one, but two dungeons to learn PSI Starstorm.
  • Somewhat averted in World of Warcraft with Hunter pets; if you happen to tame one that's substantially lower level than yourself, the tamed pet will automatically be raised to your level minus 5.
    • But of course, this still did happen. Just not from lack of experience, rather, it was because of other people. Didn't catch the attunement rush and are therefore still getting quests for your Karazhan key and grinding to get a Heroic Key? Too bad - you didn't catch the groups that were doing it and when your guild was doing it, so no key for you! Nobody wants to do the 5-man Lower blackrock Spire or Jailbreak? Sucks to be you then - I hear there's a group forming for those next week, maybe you can catch the group before they fill. And even during the Attunement rush (when one could find groups without having to sit around Shattrah for hours or bribe people to help), did you forget to log on and run instances to get reputation? Then no Heroic Key for You!! It wasn't as bad on higher-population servers as it was on wasteland servers, because people would often leave the Low-Pop servers to go to the higher-pop servers so they can actually get groups together or have a chance at joining guilds. So you need to be attuned to Onyxia to get into the guild, huh? Well without a guild, you can't get an Onyxia key because of the "Fuck you - I got mine, I'm not wasting my time running Jailbreak/Trial of Blood again if I don't benefit from it!"-mentality that resulted from content-burnout.
      • More generically, when you started a new character, unless you had friends on the server it will end up being difficult to get groups for dungeons as you level up if most of the people on the server are focusing on endgame content. While it's possible to simply level up and get gear from questing, the best stuff is in dungeons and having stronger gear makes the leveling process smoother. (This is probably also why Blizzard reduced the amount of experience to level - because instances gave more experience than solo play, but without people running don't have that much of a choice) But then again though, we had the dungeon finder so this became a bit of a moot point in Wrath.
        • And combining both "Ugh I'm not running that again!" and "But I need gear!" in one example; let's mention the gear situation. Because they dropped pieces for only one class, many people would be stuck with the same pieces of gear for a while despite having been in the dungeon all the time because it just never dropped for them. And take the most hardcore raiding guilds and they wouldn't touch Molten Core with a ten-foot pole unless they would get gear from it. (And even then, some of 'em would only run for the last couple bosses because they don't want to fight the first couple for the umpteenth time)
        • Even though the implementation of the Dungeon Finder tool in patch 3.3 generated some It's Easy, So It Sucks from hardcore players, it pretty much eliminated the problem of newer players not being able to find people willing to help them get geared. Of course, the group you get is random and often cross-server, so teamwork is a bit trickier (and often a test of patience), but it's now infinitely easier to be able to actually run dungeons you need to get gear from, making leveling easier and allowing more people to access the vast endgame content. It's one of few features that the notoriously Unpleasable Fanbase has almost universally praised. (Then again though, how many people liked spending hours spamming "LFG" in chat?)
    • Although Blizzard learned a lot during Wrath of the Lich King, with the new expansion Cataclysm this trope may be raising it's head again. Dungeons now have minimum item level requirements to be able to use the dungeon finder feature. Heroics require an even higher level. This can lead to the situation where solo players cannot get items with high enough scores to run the very dungeons they need to run to get better items. With the dramatically increased difficulty of Heroic mode dungeons, and the already-infamously long wait for DPS spots, it also leads to a much higher amount of Rage Quitting if just one person messes up a mechanic, leaving the abandoned players screwed for another hour-long wait in the finder queue. Although this got a lot better around 2010, when queues started to get shorter and the hardcore people started to leave.
      • Also, Heroic-level dungeons have gotten into a loop of people trying to run Heroics to get the gear they need to improve their survivability and damage output, but getting kicked from groups because their gear is bad, meaning they can't run the dungeons they need to run to get better gear.
    • The aversion with Hunter pets was a recent change; before that, if you were wandering around as a level 60 Hunter and spotted a level 5 Beast you wanted, you had to raise it all the way from level 5.
  • Particularly Egregious in Fire Emblem. Often you won't even be able to easily train your low-level units late into the game because by then most enemies will be able to permanently kill them in one hit. Low-level units do at least get a form of Leaked Experience in that they gain more XP from a given enemy than a high-level unit would. You'll end up with either a small group of highly-experienced war gods or a Redshirt Army, and since you can only field so many units at a time, too often a lot of perfectly good units become permanent bench-warmers not long after you get them.
    • It's really easy to make them progress if you know what you're doing. You can farm the bosses: have a high defense unit get hit by the boss until he breaks his weapon, then hurt him for even one Hit Point using your low level unit. Since bosses don't move, give more XP, and are often placed on thrones and gates, regenerating HP each turn, it's pathetically easy.
    • There's also the simpler strategy of softening up enemies with your stronger characters, and then allowing the weaker ones to deliver the killing blow, getting the lion's share of the XP.
      • And in Fire Emblem: Path Of Radiance and Radiant Dawn, you have bonus XP you can give to any of your unit.
      • Sacred Stones also averted this. It had a world map that you could freely travel after a certain point in the story. Old levels would get overrun with monsters, which you could kill to easily level your weaker units, get your powerhouses to max level, and grind supports. Not surprisingly, a common complaint against the game is that it's too easy.
  • At least the first two Star Ocean games have this, as you can't take the main character out of the party, so if you're looking to have everyone else stay at an even level, he'll end up a dozen or more levels higher than everyone else.
    • Averted in the PSP remake (at least of Star Ocean 1): once you have 5+ party members, you can juggle anyone in and out of the main party to let everyone get a fair chance to level up if you want. Yet played somewhat straight with Skill Points, which are more important than level in increasing a character's stats, and so later party members risk trailing behind very easily - especially the secret party member, who comes in at a very high level. So high, in fact, that she's lost many Skill Points the others would have gained and spent already because the points for that many levels exceed the cap, and also didn't benefit from abilities that increased points on leveling up as the others did by taking the slow way up.
  • In Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story there's a very brief section where Mario and Luigi get separated, and Luigi has to go find his brother. You can get into a couple of Luigi-only fights at this point, and be annoyingly stuck with the Bros' XP levels being out-of-sync for the rest of the game.
    • This actually seemed like an attempted inversion. Since Mario has better defense, it's not hard to see a fight where Luigi dies right before the experience is dished out, meaning that Mario could overshadow his brother. Solo time for Luigi gives him a chance to catch up.
    • In Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga there's one point in Joke's End where you can split the bros up every time you visit. Since there are several segments where you play as just one brother (Guffawhaw Ruins, the repaired Koopa Cruiser, the following underground-Tee-hee Valley run, etc) it really helped even things out, since Luigi's stages tend to lack enemies, but Mario's don't... of course, you can take advantage of this.
  • Averted in Mass Effect, where all secondary characters accrue experience equally. Unused characters are given experience points retroactively when brought into the active party.
  • In Final Fantasy Tactics, you tend to pick your core party of 5 characters to level up in Chapter One, and while it's not impossible for everybody else to play catch-up, most people don't bother.
    • Except for Cidolfus Orlandeau. Better known as Thunder God Cid. Better known as the guy who can (and will) replace your best special melee classes with his own class which combines the three best close combat classes into one giant stabbing machine. Coming free in the storyline, along with Excalibur helps. He Can'tCatchUp, because he's already so far infront he can (quite literally) solo the final boss from when you get him (if you are smart with abilities and equipment).
  • In Legend of Mana, your NPCs and Mons aren't always bright enough to pick up EXP gems, making them lag unless you have an accessory equipped that allows Leaked Experience; still, leveling NPCs isn't very useful since their levels reset on New Game+.
  • There's a part in Lost Odyssey that can leave a player stuck if they fall into this. Oh, you were only leveling up your main power group this entire time? Too bad! Now you have to use your underleveled characters for the rest of this disc.
  • In both the computer and tabletop version of Avalon Hill's Third Reich the French army never improves, ever. Normally this isn't a problem, because France usually falls to the Germans no later than Spring 1941. But sometimes, especially if the Axis player decides to go east and attack the Soviet Union first, France may hold out more or less indefinitely, in which case this trope becomes very noticeable. Every other country gets new units in 1942 or '43; even the Italians get a paratrooper and another 9-factor fleet. The French are stuck with mostly 2-3 infantry and a few 3-5 armor units, plus two 5-factor air fleets, and they never get a paratrooper. There's just not a lot they can do at that point. Although this may be more a case of Can'tAvoidFallingBehind.
  • This is very noticeable in Warhammer 40000: Rites of War. As the game progresses, new units become available, but as units see action, they gain experience, which means that the units you've had since early in the game will have become very powerful by the time many of the more advanced units become available. This would not be a problem if there weren't a pretty tight cap on the number of units you can have in your army, which only increases very slowly. As a result, you are unlikely to ever use many of the units that become available later in the game. Sure, all else being equal, Warp Spiders might make a better tactical unit than Dire Avengers, but all else is not equal: level zero Warp Spiders are nowhere near as powerful as Dire Avenger Exarchs. To make matters worse, because highly experienced units are so effective in combat, you are likely to rely on them very heavily in combat, and guess what units earn experience from: combat. So even if you do bring in novice units into your army, they are likely to advance slowly if at all. This is an especially acute problem with support units, especially psykers. For most of the campaign, the only psykers available to you are Warlocks, who have one, purely defensive psyker ability, and very little in the way of combat ability otherwise, meaning that it is very hard for them to gain the experience to advance to a level where they gain actually useful psyker abilities. Eventually you get a Farseer, who is already at a high experience level and has all four Eldar psyker abilities; also, you eventually gain the ability to recruit Space Marine Librarians, who have access to all four of their psyker abilities at level zero. There is some good news in all this: reinforcements you gain on the battlefield, which mostly means friendly units you rescue from Tyranid encirclement, come in at high levels of experience. Also, in one of the later scenarios in the campaign, one can acquire an artifact called the Chalice of Khaine, which enables, among other abilities, the unit that possesses it to advance in experience very quickly. At that point it starts looking profitable to recruit a green unit per scenario, since that unit can end up at level ten in one scenario with the right usage. Lastly, the Avatar of Khaine is automatically at level ten when he becomes available, averting this trope.
    • There's also a literal example of this with the Imperial units you can recruit, especially Space Marines: they are generally noticeably slower than Eldar units, meaning that as your army advances on the battlefield, they tend to fall behind. Which means that Eldar units, at the front line, tend to see a lot of combat, and gain experience quickly, while the slower Imperial units, in the rear, see comparatively little combat, and gain little if any experience. And even if you do have highly experienced Imperial units, they still tend to fall to the rear and see less actual combat, so you get little if any use out of what are, on paper, highly experienced, powerful units. Again, this is a more serious problem with the Space Marines and Imperial Guard; the Adepta Sororitas tend to be quicker, and can generally keep up with the Eldar. Also, pretty much all aerial units tend to be very fast.
  • This is one of the weaknesses of the Zuul from Sword of the Stars. They have the worst research rate and poor chances for most high-end techs, meaning that they will lose out if forced into a long slog where their early advantages have been lost and they fail to salvage those techs through combat.
  • A really annoying example is Shining Force III where you spend the game picking up around 30 main characters but only 20 can be active in your army at any one time. So you pick your favourites and train the heck out of them leaving everybody behind. Then right at the end of the game you're forced to split your team into going into two fights against strong opponents, and guess who the second team consists of? Yeah all the guys sitting on the bench. Thankfully you can take part in training levels to help them level up (although Pen starting at tier 1 level 1 is a real challenge) and you can hire a couple of mid-level mooks to bluff out your team and give them a bit of a fighting chance.
  • Super Robot Wars games are a bit more forgiving on this front than Fire Emblem, but this trope is still there: pilots that leave your party always catch up to your average level when they return. However, someone who never leaves the party may languish twenty levels behind your main guys until he or she is suddenly a Required Party Member who must be protected or, worse, a Required Party Member who sorties solo for several turns.
  • Similarly to Super Robot Wars, the Mech Commander video games start commanders with a core cadre of pilots. As only those pilots who go into battles gain experience, some players spread around the experience so that pilots can level up more or less equally. However, the more experience a pilot gains, the higher their rank becomes. In the first game, this means that they are more proficient at using heavier chassis, meaning that they can use its weapons, equipment, and defenses to a greater extent. In the second game, this manifests as new skills you can teach a pilot who levels up. Therefore it is usually in a commander's best interest to pick a few pilots (mostly any regulars and a few promising rookies) and stick with them for the bulk of the game. As it's possible to lose pilots through sheer bad luck or poor strategic choices, new pilots are made available later on in both games through various fashions, but these pilots are usually have lower skill ratings even if they have similar ranks to the player's current pilots. The first game at least made all pilots more or less similar aside from their skill levels, but in the second game, where pilots are more specialized, later-game recruits and many, many green pilots generally won't see use and will fall behind. This is especially painful if more experienced pilots are lost and the player has to go into the endgame with underleveled green pilots with few or no skills.


  • In Dubious Company, Lieutenant Paladin Leeroy Perkins, who wants to prove himself as the best at something, anything, is cursed to be Number Two at everything.
    • He's a good fighter, but not as good as Tiren. He's smart, but not as smart as Sal. He's skilled, but not as skilled as Walter. He's second-grade Bishounen compared to Elly. And unbeknownst to him was runner-up to Sal as The Chosen One. God flipped a coin.

Western Animation

  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, poor Sokka, though he's The Smart Guy, becomes a swordsman when he notices this trope, and has a lot of non-combat skills, is much less useful in direct fights against people elemental powers. Because while Long Feng can kill someone with blunt force, you can't go chopping off heads on a kids show. However...
    • He totally messed up Sparky Sparky Boom Man. But, in general, he works best in group vs. group scenarios.
    • Depending on how you cut it, he may have one of the highest kill counts and kill assists in the series. Most war machines used in the series were at least in part his design, and he stranded about a dozen airships worth of Fire Nation soldiers in the middle of an ocean. Only one of those ships had its occupants dropped from a safe height. All of the others were high in the sky, and they were rammed in to. And all of them had troops completely covered in bulky armor, who would be unlikely to swim easily. That's right, he may have almost as many implied kills as The Avatar State.
  • Avoided in Transformers: Beast Wars, where despite not going TransMetal or getting a shiny new upgrade like the better half of his teammates, Rhinox still managed to hold his own in most fights. Dinobot also manages to be extremely Badass despite no upgrades, going so far as to take on the entire Predacon team by himself. His clone does get upgrades though.
    • Arguably, everyone else caught up to Rhinox. Between the Chainguns of Command and a fist with the force of a small truck, Rhinox was the most damaging force in the show short of Berserk Optimus for the first season.
    • And Optimal Optimus? Not only does he miss Chew Toy Waspinator, he gets shot down by him.
  • In Dragon Booster, Artha became so powerful towards the end that the regular antagonist, Moordryd, got an upgrade early in the third season. Even so, he was left in the dust in terms of power. Artha's teammates didn't even get upgrades, instead sitting around watching Artha and Moordryd shoot magical beams at each other for much of the third season.

Real Life

  • This trope is the reason Ruby Rose left Batwoman: unlike Stephen Arnell and Grant Gustin and Melissa Benoist and Cress Williams, she can't commit to a busy schedule like they do or do the kind of intense physical stunts that they do.
  • Every so often, sports produce a case of Can't Catch Up. Sometimes one of a pair of rivals will steadily fall behind another. Other times, a team (or even family!) will produce a slew of talented competitors and one competent one who can never seem to live up to his comrades. This is usually very disheartening for athletes and fans alike.