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The Kobayashi Maru is a test in the fictional Star Trek universe. It is a Starfleet training exercise designed to test the character of cadets in the command track at Starfleet Academy. The Kobayashi Maru test was first depicted in the opening scene of the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and also appears in the 2009 film Star Trek. Screenwriter Jack B. Sowards is credited with inventing the test, naming it after a friend whose last name was Kobayashi. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Dr. McCoy referenced the test as an example of the no-win scenario that he and Captain Kirk were facing. The test's name is occasionally used among Star Trek fans or those familiar with the series to describe a no-win scenario, or a solution that involves redefining the problem.
The notional primary goal of the exercise is to rescue the civilian vessel Kobayashi Maru in a simulated battle with the Klingons. The disabled ship is located in the Klingon Neutral Zone, and any Starfleet ship entering the zone would be in violation of the Organian Peace Treaty. The approaching cadet crew must decide whether to attempt rescue of the Kobayashi Maru crew – endangering their own ship and lives – or leave the Kobayashi Maru to certain destruction. If the cadet chooses to attempt rescue, the simulation is designed to guarantee that the ship is destroyed with the loss of all crew members.
In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the simulation takes place on a replica of a starship bridge, with the test-taker as captain and other Starfleet members, officers or other cadets, in other key positions. In the scenario of the 2280s, the cadet receives a distress signal stating that the Kobayashi Maru has struck a gravitic mine in the Klingon Neutral Zone and is rapidly losing power, hull integrity and life support. There are no other vessels nearby. The cadet is faced with a decision:
If the cadet chooses to save the Kobayashi Maru the scenario progresses quickly. The bridge officers notify the cadet that they are in violation of the treaty. As the starship enters the Neutral Zone, the communications officer loses contact with the crippled vessel. Klingon starships then appear on an intercept course. Attempts to contact them are met with radio silence; indeed, their only response is to open fire with devastating results. The objective of the test is not for the cadet to outfight the opponent but rather to test the cadet's reaction to a no-win situation.
The opening of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is itself a Kobayashi Maru test, but this is not revealed until after the end of the scene, leading the audience to believe that this is a 'genuine' combat scenario involving the U.S.S. Enterprise. The test-taker, Lt. Saavik, is in command of the simulated U.S.S. Enterprise. Captain Spock is in his familiar role as science officer and second-in-command with Dr. McCoy standing by on the bridge, Uhura as communications officer, Hikaru Sulu as helm officer, and (as the viewers later learn) cadets filling other roles.
The scene, using the set built to represent the bridge of the Enterprise further on in the movie, was a vehicle to introduce the character, Lt. Saavik, played by Kirstie Alley, the concept of the no-win scenario, and the plot line that James Kirk had never faced such a scenario.
The test starts near the edge of the Klingon Neutral Zone, where the ship receives a distress signal from the Kobayashi Maru. The vessel has struck a gravitic mine within the Neutral Zone and its systems are failing, including life support. Saavik orders Sulu to plot an intercept course, taking note when he points out the inherent treaty violation in doing so.
Not long after the Enterprise attempts a rescue, contact with the damaged ship is lost and three Klingon battle cruisers appear on an intercept course. Outgunned and in violation of the treaty, Saavik orders a retreat, but the Klingon ships quickly overtake and cripple the Enterprise. Sulu "dies" when the helm explodes, and subsequent explosions "kill" Uhura, McCoy, and Spock. Montgomery Scott reports that the Enterprise is dead in space, so Saavik orders the log buoy launched and that the crew abandon ship.
Admiral James Kirk, who had been monitoring the situation from an outside control room, halts the simulation. All the "deceased" officers begin to rise, and Spock (now revealed as the cadets' instructor) orders the trainees to the briefing room. Saavik protests being subjected to an unwinnable scenario, opining that it does not properly reflect her command abilities. Kirk explains that the test is meant to reveal how the subject deals with a no-win scenario, as how one deals with death is as important as how one deals with life. Later in the film, after repeated inquiries from Saavik, Kirk says that the exercise is a true "no-win scenario," because there is no correct resolution—it is a test of character.
James T. Kirk took the test three times while at Starfleet Academy. Before his third attempt, Kirk surreptitiously reprogrammed the simulator so that it was possible to rescue the freighter. This fact finally comes out in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, as Kirk, Saavik and others appear marooned, near death. Saavik's response is, "Then you never faced that situation...faced death." Kirk replies, "I don't believe in the no-win scenario." Despite having cheated, Kirk had been awarded a commendation for "original thinking."
As Spock had not entered Starfleet Academy as a command-track cadet, he did not take the Kobayashi Maru test while there. In his death scene at the conclusion of The Wrath of Khan, he described his sacrifice as his solution to the no-win scenario.
Depictions of the Kobayashi Maru test are a fairly popular subject in Star Trek literature. Non-canonical examples of Kobayashi Maru tests have been described in many Star Trek novels. Much like Kirk, characters are frequently depicted as coming up with very innovative or surprising ways of handling the situation.
In the novel Dreadnought by Diane Carey, the protagonist, Piper, a recent academy graduate, manages to crash the entire simulator by attempting to improvise an engineering solution to the problem through a very unorthodox series of computer commands and jury-rigging, essentially tricking the computer into fighting itself. Her instructors admit that her solution might theoretically have been successful.
In A.C. Crispin's novel Sarek, Peter Kirk, James T. Kirk's nephew, uses his experiences throughout the novel to come up with another way to defeat the unwinnable scenario, this time against Romulan opponents. Upon entering the Romulan Neutral Zone, he provokes the Romulans, who are expected to destroy the Enterprise. Before the Romulans open fire, Peter challenges the Romulan commander to a ritual fight to the death (using an obscure but still valid Romulan law predating their schism with the Vulcans), in which actual battle is prohibited until the contest is resolved. As Peter leaves the bridge to go to the simulation transporter room, he instructs the crew to beam aboard the "survivors" and escape, leaving him to certain death.
The simulation ends with the supervising instructor ending the test in confusion. Upon learning of Peter's trick, he promises to change the scenario to prevent it from being re-used. Peter is credited, however, with coming up with an actual "winning" solution: saving the Kobayashi Maru and his own ship by sacrificing himself.
In William Shatner's novel Avenger, Captain Christine McDonald of the USS Tobias tells Captain Kirk that in her time, the Kobayashi Maru scenario is no longer used to test character, but rather to evaluate the very "original thinking" for which Kirk had received a commendation. In the new version of the scenario, cadets are charged with coming up with ways to outsmart the simulation by reprogramming it to counter various moves made by the more advanced AI of the computer.
In Stone and Anvil, Mackenzie Calhoun realizes that it is impossible to rescue the Kobayashi Maru. He uses the unorthodox solution of destroying the Kobayashi Maru itself. He determines that a rescue attempt will be unsuccessful, would likely end in failure and would probably also result in his own ship being destroyed or captured. His reasoning is that it is more merciful to kill the civilians outright rather than let them be captured (and likely tortured) by the Romulans. Alternatively, he proposes the possibility that the entire scenario is a Romulan trap and the Kobayashi Maru is in league with the Romulans, so destruction of the Kobayashi Maru is a valid attack on an enemy.
Quintin Stone was reputed to have beaten the Kobayashi Maru test, without cheating. His strategy was not described in the book, but the achievement was still considered to be particularly noteworthy, even amongst seasoned officers. The programmers of the simulation however, were said to have been in mourning for a week after the fact.
Three short stories in the Strange New Worlds anthologies series have also tackled the test. In "The Bottom Line" by Andrew Morby (Strange New Worlds III, 2000) and Shawn Michael Scott's "Best Tools Available" (Strange New Worlds VI, 2003), cadet Nog solves the scenario in two entirely different (and thoroughly Ferengi) manners.
Kevin Lauderdale's "A Test of Character" (Strange New Worlds VII, 2004) depicts a different version of Kirk's solution from Ecklar's, in which Kirk's tampering is "cheating without cheating," since he merely creates a level playing field where success is not necessarily guaranteed.
In this novel by Andy Mangels and Michael A. Martin, the scenario occurs as an actual plot event instead of a training exercise. The Kobayashi Maru is a retrofitted Klingon cargo vessel under Earth control and with a human crew. When the ship is struck by a gravitic mine, Captain Jonathan Archer and the crew of the Enterprise are sent to assist. Though forewarned that the Enterprise is entering a trap set by the Romulans, Archer attempts to rescue the crew and passengers of the Kobayashi Maru. At this point three Klingon cruisers being controlled by remote Romulan telepresence systems drop out of warp and begin attacking the Enterprise. As the ship's systems begin to fail from Romulan attempts to capture Enterprise via the same telepresence systems, Archer is forced to withdraw, preventing the capture of Enterprise but leaving the Kobayashi Maru to be destroyed.
The 2009 J. J. Abrams film depicts cadet James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) reprogramming the test so the Klingon ships' shields suddenly drop, allowing all five to be destroyed with ease so the safe rescue of the Kobayashi Maru can commence. This incident earns him the ire of Spock, who is an Academy instructor maintaining the simulation.
During a disciplinary hearing, Spock and Kirk meet for the first time and say many of the same lines that their characters originally used in The Wrath of Khan. Kirk argues that the test itself is a cheat, since the program is unwinnable, and thus cheating is the only solution. Spock counters that the point of the test is not to win, but to face fear and accept the possibility of death, like Kirk's father did. Due to an attack on Vulcan by the film's villain Nero, the hearing is put on hold and left unresolved.
In the video game Star Trek: Starfleet Academy, one of the missions assigned to the player is the Kobayashi Maru scenario. The player – who controls the character of Cadet David Forrester – has a choice to make before the test. The player can have Forrester face the unaltered version of the test, or have Forrester reprogram the computer as Captain Kirk did, altering the scenario in one of three ways. He can reprogram the Klingon AI, making them fight poorly (they do not fire at all), reprogram the strength of the Klingon ships by making them easier to beat (in addition, their weapons cause no damage), or make the Klingon captains fear and respect him personally (Kirk's solution from the novel).
If the player cheats by altering the battle itself, he is treated to two larger waves of Klingon D7 cruisers after destroying the initial wave of three. After destroying those waves, the simulator computer crashes with a Guru Meditation error, and in debriefing the commandant remarks that he would be impressed were it not for the impossibility of such a feat.
If the player cheats by instilling fear and respect into the Klingon captains, he is able to hail the Klingons during the scenario. The Klingon captain extols Forrester's prowess, and agrees to help him rescue the freighter instead. This allows the scenario to complete successfully, and the commandant seems truly impressed in debriefing. No matter how the player cheats, if he chooses this option the cheating is detected by Academy staff, and Forrester is offered a chance to avoid punishment by helping the authorities with an ongoing criminal investigation.
If the player decides to face the unaltered version, the ship is swiftly destroyed by the first wave of D7 cruisers, or if they opt to not rescue the ship, they are forced to listen to the crew of the Kobayashi Maru die. It is possible to defeat the Klingons in the unaltered version; however before the player can rescue the crew of the Kobayashi Maru, the game bugs out and the player's ship blows up anyway even though there are no Klingons left.
In the video game Star Trek: Starfleet Command III, one of the campaign missions is titled "Klingon Maru". However, the player can rescue the ship and not fight a battle.
There was also a Kobayashi Alternative video game published by Simon & Schuster in 1985. The game was a text adventure written by Diane Duane depicting the "Kobayashi Alternative Command Performance Evaluation", a test being proposed to replace the Kobayashi Maru scenario, and was available for the Apple II, Commodore 64, MS-DOS PC-compatible, and Macintosh platforms. The first mission of the first-person shooter, Star Trek: Voyager: Elite Force, developed by Raven Software and published by Activision in 2000, is considered Ensign Munro's (the player character's) Kobayashi Maru by Commander Tuvok.
In Star Trek DAC for XBLA and PSN, there is an trophy called Kobayashi Maru that is only achievable by entering a cheat code. Paramount, the publisher of the game, leaked the cheat code in a press release.
In Star Trek Online, the Fleet Action mission released on July 12, 2012, titled "No Win Scenario" pits a 5-player team against progressively harder waves of computer-controlled enemy ships who attempt to destroy the stationary freighter. The mission ends when the freighter is destroyed or the team defeats all 10 waves. Defeating higher waves rewards players with increased numbers of Fleet Marks and unlocks several Accolades and Captain Titles. Defeating the ninth wave yields the "Original Thinking" accolade and grants the "Original Thinker" title, and defeating the final wave rewards the "I don't believe in the No-Win Scenario" accolade which grants the title "Kirk's Protégé".