The Kobayashi Maru test was first depicted in the opening scene of the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in which command division cadets at Starfleet Academy are presented with a no-win scenario as a test of character. This provided context for how the main character, Admiral James T. Kirk, deals with the possibility of unwinnable situations, and death in particular.
The training exercise in Star Trek II describes the Kobayashi Maru as a Class III neutronic fuel carrier-ship, commanded by Kojiro Vance, with a crew of 81 and 300 passengers. The name is Japanese, and loosely translates as the ship named Kobayashi, with Kobayashi (小林) meaning small forest and being a common family name. Maru (丸) is a common suffix for Japanese ship names.
In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the simulation takes place on a replica of a starship bridge, with the "testee" 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 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, the scenario progresses quickly. The bridge officers notify the cadet that they are in violation of the treaty, which is duly noted in the log. As the starship enters the Neutral Zone, the communications officer loses contact with the crippled vessel. Three 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 simulation ends with the understanding that the cadet's ship and crew have been lost. There is no way to win the resulting 'battle'; but then, the objective of the test is not for the cadet to outfight the opponent, but rather to test the cadet's behavior and thought processes in the face of insurmountable odds or circumstances.
By the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Federation had reached an alliance with the Klingons, rendering the previous format of the scenario no longer suitable. In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Learning Curve", Lieutenant Tuvok placed several former Maquis crewmembers in a similar scenario on the holodeck using a damaged Ferengi starship and Romulan warbird as the opponent in a tactical training scenario.
Saavik makes a captain's log entry and instructs Sulu to "Project parabolic course to avoid entering Neutral Zone." Suddenly, Uhura receives a distress signal. It's from the Kobayashi Maru, which has struck a "gravitic mine" within the Neutral Zone and is losing all its systems, including life support. Some may question the ship's presence in the Zone, but it's not inherently a treaty violation. If it's a cargo carrier, it could be a private ship and therefore can travel within the Zone. Furthermore, the test reveals that this is the Neutral Zone between the Federation and Klingon Empire (abolished very late in the 23rd century), not the Zone between the Federation and the Romulan Star Empire.
Saavik orders Sulu to "Plot an intercept course," to which Sulu replies, in accordance with a Starfleet officer's duties, "May I remind the Captain that if a starship enters the Zone..." Saavik quickly interrupts him, saying she is aware of her responsibilities. As the simulated Enterprise violates the treaty and approaches the vicinity of the Kobayashi Maru, Uhura announces that she has suddenly lost the ship's signal. Immediately, a computer alert sounds that three Klingon battle cruisers are on an intercept course. Outgunned and on the wrong side of the border, Saavik orders the Enterprise out of the Neutral Zone.
Before Sulu can pilot them out, the Klingon ships fire photon torpedoes. Sulu "dies" when the helm explodes. Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott intercoms that the main energizer is hit. Subsequent explosions "kill" Uhura and then Doctor McCoy. The cadet at the weapons console announces that the shields are collapsing. Saavik orders all phasers fired, but Spock reports that there is no power to the ship's weapons. He then "dies" when his science station explodes. Scott reports that the Enterprise is dead in space, so Saavik orders the log buoy launched and that the crew abandon ship.
Admiral 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 to us as the cadets' instructor) orders the trainees to the briefing room. Saavik protests to Kirk, "I do not believe this was a fair test of my command abilities...because, there was no way to win." He explains that "A no-win situation is a possibility that every commander may face," and that "How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life."
Later in the film, during repeated inquiries from Saavik, Kirk allows that the exercise is a true "no-win scenario," because there "is no correct resolution." Rather than a problem-solving exercise, "It's a test of character."
James T. Kirk takes the test three times while at Starfleet Academy. Prior to his third attempt, Kirk surreptitiously reprograms the simulator so that it is possible to rescue the freighter. This fact finally comes out, later in the movie, 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 his having cheated, Kirk was 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 would describe his sacrifice as his solution to the 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 shown in many Star Trek novels. Much like how Kirk cheated to win, characters are frequently depicted as coming up with very innovative or surprising ways of handling the situation.
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 extolls 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. In the PC 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 computer 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 the U.S. film version of Godzilla (1998), the Japanese freighter destroyed by the creature in the beginning is named the Kobayashi Maru.
In the film Dog Soldiers (2002) a soldier describes their situation as "the Kobayashi Maru test" when they find a bug in a radio. He assumes that their exercise was always a no-win scenario.
In Duke Nukem 3D Expansion Pack Caribbean, a boat named Kobayashi Maru is set as the start and end point of several game levels.
A character from the movie The Usual Suspects (1995) is named Kobayashi, who blackmails the others into a seemingly unwinnable situation.
In the Bridge Simulator used at the State University of New York Maritime College, simulations often include a container ship, which is flagged in Japan, and named the Kobeashi Maru.
Star Trek Bridge Commander has several mods under the name Kobayashi Maru which gives the game more ships, better graphics, and still allows multiplayer capability. The Kobayashi Maru 1.0 mod also includes the test as misson.
Business theory commentators have used the Kobayashi Maru as an example of the need to redefine the foundation upon which a business competes -- changing the rules rather than playing within a rigged game -- as an example of successful business strategy.
In the webcomic Erfworld (Bonus page: Parson's Klog 1), Parson suggests himself to be in an altered state of consciousness and theorizes that his gaming group may have provoked it as an out-of-the-box Kobayashi Maru tactic for getting rid of the no-win scenario. He also thinks about rewarding them for their original thinking
In the webcomic Home on the Strange, in Tanner's Party Prep, Part 3, Tom referred to Tanner as "A living Kobayashi Maru."
Randy Pausch, of Last Lecture fame, had the childhood dream of "being Captain Kirk." After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (which proved fatal almost a year later) he received a signed autographed picture of Kirk saying "I don't believe in the no-win scenario. My Best, William Shatner