No anime quite divides anime fans like Sword Art Online. As one video claims, there are three types of anime fans – those who love SAO, those who like SAO but admit its flaws, and finally, those who outright hate the series.
So, where do I fall on this spectrum? Well, here’s how I’d put it. Deep in my heart, I know Sword Art Online is trash. But here’s the conflicting thing – I still bloody love it. But why is this?
The Concept Is Awesome
Truth is, the concept itself is appealing to me. I’m not the most hardcore gamer in gamerdom, but I’ve played my fair share of videogames. While I’m not big on MMORPGs, I’ve played enough to know how they work. So, you can imagine that the concept of players getting trapped in a VRMMO is appealing to someone like me. I know others feel the same.
Ah, you might say – but SAO, the in-universe game, doesn’t function like your traditional MMORPG. And I know this – many anime critics have pointed out SAO would be terrible in real life. In Sword Art Online, players are forced to play DPS (Damage Per Second) and they are severely limited to melee weapons with no magic (at least in Season 1). Yeah, yeah, I get your point, I do – and it’s completely valid.
However, I overlook it because Sword Art Online is fiction. Just as I’m aware that if I go around the woods searching for the rabbit hole to Wonderland a la Lewis Carroll’s iconic novel, I won’t find it, I’m aware I’m unlikely to find a game of SAO‘s caliber succeeds in real life if it ever hit the shelves. That said, realizing that Wonderland is heavily unlikely to exist on our planet doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel and its popular Disney adaptation. I view SAO as something of a wild fantasy despite its near-future science fiction setting.
Therefore, I’m happy to rest my brain when I see Kirito and company kick virtual ass in this fictional game. Many critics (for example, Mother’s Basement – an intelligent YouTuber whom I deeply respect) criticize the impracticality of the in-universe game’s HP bars and the menus and those are valid points. But from an anime’s visual perspective, I think they’re pretty damn stylish and cool. Watching Kirito scroll down a hand-activated item list helps make the show a bit more relatable as a gamer, too.
SAO and the Adventures of Gary Stu
Even as a guilty fan of the series, I can acknowledge Kirito’s nature as an overpowered ‘Gary Stu’ of sorts. Yes, he’s frustratingly brilliant at almost every virtual RPG he plays in the series (one memorable example is how he quickly adjusts to Alfheim’s flight system). But I suppose I like Kirito because he is noble and uses his gaming abilities to save others. I like Kirito even more as the Aincrad arc comes to a close – his relationship with Asuna brings out his gentler and emotional side and it’s heartwarming to see how their bond helps create meaning in an otherwise nihilistic death game world. I’ll admit that their relationship does get put on the sidelines as the series progresses but overall, their dedication to one another is still heartwarming stuff. It’s one of the more underrated elements of Sword Art Online.
Speaking of heartwarming, I enjoy the stories in the series. Most of the action takes place in virtual MMOs and it’s apparent that most of the main cast’s biggest events take place in these worlds. The characters find a great deal of meaning in their virtual existence and despite the virtual experience being man-made, it’s apparent that the characters find these experiences just as valuable as their time in the natural world. That concept alone is intriguing ground for a narrative, and I feel this is consistently exemplified in their adventures. Despite meeting in virtual worlds, Kirito develops some of his closest relationships in them including Klein, Asuna, and Sinon. Hell, his experiences in Alfheim help him become closer to his cousin, a girl whom he admits he felt alienated from upon finding out they aren’t real siblings. I think it’s an underrated arc in Sword Art Online.
One thing I love about Sword Art Online is the visuals. Castle Aincrad is beautifully realized as it hangs ephemerally in the air before we switch to the action inside. Even Alfheim is beautiful with its range of species and the World Tree locale. I can’t ignore the effort sustained by the studio’s design team.
The presentation is further amplified by the music. The wistful strings and piano-led melodies help emphasize the fantastical nature of these worlds, despite their being virtual ones. How SAO illustrates the majesty of these worlds adds to the series’ theme of the virtual being as legitimate as the real. This underrated element is something often overlooked by the SAO’s critics when it comes to how terrible they think it is.
In many ways, the show’s stories are balanced in how they perceive virtual technology. The villains of the franchise – Akayaba, Sigurd, etc – exploit the tech for their gain. However, Kirito and company show us how tech can be used for good. In a society that is skeptical of technology as it increasingly takes over our lives, the positive message espoused by SAO is refreshing. It shows us that technology can bring meaning to our lives and not merely a nihilistic product of a secular world, as the stereotype often preaches.
But Alas, dear Kirito…
These are just a few of the reasons why I enjoy SAO. However, I hope I make it clear I’m aware of its multiple downsides. From its incompetent handling of sexual assault, its multiple plotholes, its awkward pacing early on, there’s much to criticize about the series. Reki Kawahara, the author of the light novels on which the anime is based, has gone on record to say that he plans to improve his writing in the future. One can only hope. It’s the only way Kawahara can convince critics that SAO can be better than terrible.
Yet, I can’t help but feel a sense of adventure, emotion, and excitement whenever I crank up Sword Art Online – especially its first season. It’s by no means a perfect show – far from it – but there’s plenty in there to recommend. And it’s the plenty in there that will make me continue to watch in the future. SAO is terrible – but I love it.
Do you think SAO is terrible? Or do you think Sword Art Online is underrated despite its flaws? What other VRMMO-type anime would you recommend to others? Let us know in the comments below!