There is a lot of love and hate for Sword Art Online, a lot of hype and a lot of gripes. I think both are completely over-exaggerated and biased; fanboys gonna fanboy and haters gonna hate.
With season 2 rolling out, I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon and watch season 1. After watching the 25 episodes, I see why many like it.
SAO is fun to watch. The animation is great. The soundtrack is top-notch. But, is it the most amazing anime of all time? Absolutely not. Take SAO for what it is: the equivalent of an amusement park roller coaster at Disneyland.
SAO’s world is the lift of the roller coaster. The better the lift, the more awe-inspiring (or terrifying if you hate coasters) the view from the top. The game settings are excellently portrayed. Subtle details such as the HP bars coming up around the characters, the wounds having cyber meshes, and the menu system popping up in front of the characters keep the setting in a “game environment.” SAO could have just as easily been a fantasy world and not much would have changed. Little touches like that make SAO’s universe a setting I truly want to see.
Oh man, the characters are bland in SAO. If the world is the lift, the characters are the loops and turns in the coaster. The fun loops are few and far, but they do exist.
I’m a fan of OP main characters. There’s nothing I hate more than pathetic main characters that can’t do anything (See Raku from Nisekoi). Is it unrealistic that almost every girl falls in love with him? Yes. But it’s funny and cursory at best. Stop obsessing over the fact that he’s attractive to other people. That’s the point. Everyone loves him and expects a lot out of him, and he pulls through.
What I like about Kirito is that he has very clear motives for what he does. Why is he a solo player? He does not want to witness anymore deaths. Why does he go berserk fighting a lot of people? He wants to protect Asuna. Even the side quests, he has his own motives. Why does he help Silica, the dragon tamer girl? He wants to catch the players who killed a bunch of people. Why does he adventure with Liz? He wants a sword. The hand of god (aka the author) dictates the people he helps are cute girls, but that can’t be helped. Multi-dimensional? Not this guy. But a one-track mind gets stuff done and keeps the story moving.
On the other hand, he’s pretty bland. He’s OP and that takes away challenge. Some people hate that. I for one don’t care. Whether the MC wins or not is not the question I ask. I expect the MC to win. I just care HOW he wins. Dual wielding? Cool! Turn into a giant monster? Cool! If he was op and he always wins in an instant, then that’s boring. But, SAO’s action scenes were varied enough that they kept my interest.
A lot of people just label her as “waifu material.” While that may be true, I consider her a stronger individual than many make her out to be. In arc 1, Asuna is easily the perfect duo for Kirito. She may be the vice commander of a guild, but she’s also so OP that she’s technically also a solo player; she just solo kills mostly everything anyway. So when two OP characters team up, it just makes for a lot of fun.
Her whole “cooking” motif is also very important to both Kirito and Asuna. There is no point to her cooking. Taste is not even a core feature of SAO. But things like the cream Kirito gives to Asuna in the beginning episodes and the mayo/soy sauce Asuna makes is a way for them to bring the real world into the virtual world. Asuna’s major development is the acceptance of SAO as part of her life, not just something keeping her from the real world. In other words, every experience she has here is a valuable one.
Is she pretty useless in arc 2? With the exception of her giving Kirito the keycard, yeah, pretty much. But she gives Kirito a reason for entering the second game and the entire second arc to exist. I’m okay with that. The tentacle stuff was weird. I skipped it.
Easily the best character in SAO. I argue she is the most developed and most complex of the bunch. Yes, the whole incest seems random, but I argue anything else would have been worse. Suguha is necessary in the second arc because she is an already familiar character to Kirito. Kirito definitely needs help in the second game because of his time limit and lack of knowledge of the second game. If you put a second female heroine who can be a potential love interest, then that just invalidates the entire point of the first arc and the motive for the second arc to happen in the first place. Hence, you put the sister in who is close enough to Kirito that their chemistry match but because she’s the sister, it’s impossible for them to actually get together. I mean, even Yui says it herself, that she doesn’t consider Kirito being with Suguha “cheating.”
“But the whole romance thing is so random!” one may argue. That may seem so from the viewer’s perspective, but I think it’s completely possible (though exaggerated in this case). To Suguha, Kirito is a brother who was once kind but fell distant. She finds out this is because he finds out the truth about his relationship with the family. She wants to reconnect that bond but is unable to do so because Kirito is stuck in SAO. When Kirito returns, Suguha views this as a second chance to fulfill that desire to reconnect with her brother. Exaggerate that desire and it may grow into romance (keep in mind they’re actually cousins and in Japan, such relationships aren’t completely taboo).
Even better is her growth as a character. Despite her feelings for Kirito, after seeing he by Asuna’s bed, she accepts his love for Asuna and tries to move on, trying to fall in love with Kirito in ALO (whom she does not know as her brother). Of course, her life is awful and by sheer bad luck Kirito in the game is Kazuto, her brother. That’s not her fault. She tries to move on, but is unable to. And even then, she overcomes that despair and has enough resolve to help Kirito AFTER REVEALING HER FEELINGS. The whole ‘selfless sacrifice’ is pretty cliche, but it’s usually done without the knowledge of the other party. Kirito knows about Suguha’s feelings. Suguha knows Kirito knows about her feelings. Despite that, she helps him. That’s a strong character.
The plot is straightfoward and generic. Fight enemy. Move on. Repeat. There were some good scenes, like the time Kirito almost dies due to the Blood Knight guard dude whose name I really don’t give a shit about in the desert when he is poisoned by water and Kirito’s fight against the Salamander general in the second arc. Plot twists? Not many. The few were pretty light and not too impactful. Overall, the plot is average and not SAO’s strongest suit.
SAO’s strongest point is easily its world. The characters are a bit bland because they fit typical stereotypes, but subtle nuances in the relationships between them help flesh them out. Individually, the characters are weak, so missing these nuances would make them feel inadequate. But then again, this is not to say the characters are the most intricate of characters who are extremely developed, not at all. But they are placed in interesting enough situations that even “average” characters provide enough entertainment.
Don’t go into SAO expecting a cinematic masterpiece. It’s not. It’s a fun show you watch for a good time. You won’t love any of the characters except Sachi and Agil (because tall black dude is awesome because reasons). Kirito beats everybody and that’s fine. Ride the roller coaster. Enjoy it. Then, move on.
SAO is like an MMO. The early tutorial levels are suffering. The midgame is enjoyable. The end game is abrupt, but conclusive. Once you finish all the raids and dungeons in the MMO, though, just leave and start a new one. Don’t stay and keep grinding for gold you don’t need.