Genre(s): Adventure, Action, Fantasy, Game, Romance, Isekai
Age-Appropriateness: 13+ (violence, language, a scene of sexual assault)
Platforms: Netflix, Hulu, Crunchyroll, Funimation
Episodes: 25 (+1 Bonus episode on Crunchyroll, Hulu)
TheAwersome Rating: 8.4 / 10 (9.1 for first arc, 7.0 for second arc)
Premise: In 2022, the first VRMMORPG is released which makes use of NerveGear technology, allowing users to play the game using all five senses and control their characters fully with their mind. After a few hours, the creator mass teleports everyone to the town hall and reveals that not only can nobody log out, but if their hit points drop to 0, the NerveGear will emit powerful microwaves killing them. The only way to return to the normal world is to clear all 100 dungeon floors without dying.
TheAwersome’s Thoughts: This here is an excellent, excellent piece of work, despite having its handful of growing pains. The first arc does an excellently immerses you in the game world and portrays the beauty of it, as well as the weight. There’s a very well-done exploration of the affects this scenario has psychologically on different people, and what would happen if 10,000 gamers were suddenly cut off from the world and left to govern themselves. Animation and music are stellar, and the main characters have some of the best (Japanese) voice acting I’ve heard in anime.
So why the disparity in the rating? SAO wraps up arcs quickly and moves on to the next one that has a distinct feel. The overall vibe of the 2nd arc vs. the 1st is quite jarring to be honest. It almost pulls a Bleach in establishing the characters, letting you get attached, and then Damsel-in-Distress-ing one of them for the next arc. It can feel like a cheap cop-out compared to the previous intense, and heavy arc. The 2nd arc also has a weird harem-like feel to it, which isn’t what anyone wants because this whole arc is about the original love interest, dang it!
TLDR: A fantastically immersive love-letter to MMORPGs backed with strong emotion that makes a great Gateway Anime. Then it goes sideways for the second arc before picking up the pieces for its second season.
There is a sequel season: Sword Art Online II.
I’ll be honest, I almost dropped this show after the first two episodes, but it kicks into gear on the third, so make it there at least. Like all things that make a large impact and get popular, there is a simplistic tropiness to SAO that earned it the absolute ire and rage of Elitist weebs all around because, just like with Pokemon GO, Fortnite, and until recently, Minecraft, anything that gets really popular is always absolute trash, am I right? At least until a few years have passed since it ends and we can look back on it with nostalgia (see: Minecraft).
So yeah, does SAO have a somewhat harem-like vibe? Unfortunately. Is the protagonist Kirito a typical overpowered nerd that everyone loves because he’s nice despite not having much other personality? Pretty much. But SAO also has a powerfully emotional soundtrack, (Yuki Kajiura of Fate/Zero, Madoka Magica, NOIR, .hack//SIGN, Demon Slayer) wonderful animation, raw talented voice acting (Japanese), and overall had a very strong impact on me. It came out at the perfect time, right when Virtual Reality was just coming into vogue, MMORPGs were still in, and the age of streaming had begun, making it a triple-combo to be perfectly relevant as the new gateway anime.
Beneath the flashy combat, world building, and storytelling SAO does what all good art does in my mind: Asks you questions. Does your behavior online affect your “true” personality? Like Lord of the Flies/Heart of Darkness: How much of our behavior and ethics are dictated by those around us? How important is power and influence, and why? In a world of conflict and danger, does that which makes you truly happy change vs. in times of peace?
Anyway, there aren’t any good trailers that are subbed, hence the dubbed one that makes the show look like it barely could land the last slot on the Saturday morning cartoon lineup, doing it hardly any justice.
Honestly, if you are looking for a good Sword Art Online series, I recommend the second half (episode 18-24) of “Sword Art Online II”. No overpowered and undeniably evil villains, no sexual assault, no harems – just a pure, heartfelt series about Asuna connecting with a terminally ill, Roman Catholic gamer girl in her VR adventures. The music is beautiful too.
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Oh absolutely, I might even like that arc better than Aincrad.
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Yeah, a lot of people trash Sword Art Online mainly because of what they saw in the first installment of the franchise from Aincrad and Alfheim, and truth be told – there is merit to their arguments; but they forget there’s more to the franchise and later ones actually improve try to deviate from that kooky stuff you mentioned. SAO II’s second half (which is called “Mother’s Rosario”, jfyi) is a prime example, which definitely overturns any of that criticism. Personally, it’s one of my favorite anime arcs and one I’ll highly recommend in an instant. Trust me, you won’t regret watching it if you ever get the chance to 🙂