Long before I started watching anime, I heard whispers of a show called Sword Art Online on Discord. Some of my acquaintances were in love with it, while others derided it and told me to steer clear. That sort of controversy piqued my interest more than rave reviews ever could, but it wouldn’t be until some time later when I was in that honeymoon phase of anime that I would finally turn my attention towards it. The honeymoon phase of anime, or the first three to six months where every show you watch is an absolute mind-blowing banger, is a precious time. However, there’s always one series that definitively ends it. For me, that would be Sword Art Online.
For those who have escaped the impact of the series, Sword Art Online is the anime based on light novels about the titular video game, where main character Kirito, romantic interest cardboard cutout Asuna, and 9,998 disposables must clear the 100 floors of Castle Aincrad and beat the game, or die trying. The game’s director, Kayaba Akihiko, has turned the game into a death trap, and rigged every player’s VR headsets to fry their brains should they log out, remove their helmets, or their HP goes to zero. A deadly video game is not ground breaking for anime, but it’s interesting nonetheless, and the reveal of Akihiko’s master plan was intensely creepy and compelling.
I watched the series enthusiastically, tearing through the first season until I got to the introduction of Yui and her subsequent ‘death’, and it began to lose its credibility. Soon after came Fairy Dance and Deathgun and suddenly finishing SAO turned into a monumental slog. I began to wonder what had drawn me in to the series in the first place, and while there’s been plenty of essays and videos tearing into SAO on account of its pacing, writing, and characters, that is not why I am here today. My reason for writing is that SAO is a show that betrayed me.
There are series that come out with such promise and then get caught in the convoluted internal logic or inability to match what came before, like in previous Lessons in Disappointment Death Note and The God of High School. Sword Art Online stands aside from either of them because it took the things that I enjoyed about the show and made them into the worst aspects of it.
The first episode of the Aincrad arc is special, as it’s one of the sharpest first episodes in anime. It’s visually and creatively wide in scope, it serves as a good introduction to our lead and a potentially wider supporting cast, but things don’t get really good until the reveal of the death game. When the series takes a turn to the creepy and horror-tinged elements that made it feel so dangerous and visceral, it really starts to shine. This was when lethal media like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Attack on Titan had started to blow up. Oof, with the way these three have gone, it doesn’t give me good vibes for Attack on Titan’s final season.
SAO managed to set up some likeable characters in an interesting albeit not original scenario, and I was looking forward to watching them clear the castle’s 100 floors. It even managed to keep that goodwill up for the next eight or so episodes, introducing new characters and floors in every episode that allowed it to have a fresh, anthology feel to it. So many kinds of stories could happen when this diversity of environment was allowed. Trips to flower gardens for powerful artifacts or icy mountains guarded by dragons could exist in the same world as a convoluted murder mystery and not feel out of place. It’s a serial writer’s dream.
Only, these episodes suffered from looking better as a group than individually. The stories did their jobs, the fights were fun, and the characters were endearing, but by themselves they were relatively weak. Perfectly good six or seven out of ten popcorn fun, but the cracks that would dent the foundation of the franchise were already showing. These characters were fun to watch for an episode, but their bland and tropey exterior couldn’t hold for long.
Kirito quickly became overpowered, essentially draining the series of any tension. That’s kind of important, since you marketed the show on the lethality of its death game mechanic. 2,000 people died in the first month, and Kirito’s first guild died, but nobody important after that, and you soon realize Kirito’s guild was only here to die to produce a weak emotional response. The main character can tank damage from half a dozen skilled players without blinking because his passive health regeneration is faster than their DPS. Other than that being a terrible development oversight on the part of the dev team, it also means I am never going to be worried in one of his fights. And then there’s Yui.
Yui shows up and almost immediately dies for that same shock value emotional reaction, but then Kirito decides that he can hack the game and store her information as an in-game item. What? In the span of a few seconds, Kirito deciphers the code to a game he’s never interacted with and figures out how to subvert it by putting the illegal code into an item. That’s so much more broken than any power he has, or anyone, actually. Goku wishes he had that kind of hacking skills. If you can do that with no experience with the game’s code whatsoever, than why can’t you deactivate the microwave in the headset that they’re using to keep you in the game?
And the icing on top of this whole long decline was Kayaba Akihiko declaring to Kirito and Asuna that he had no memory of what made him turn his magnum opus game into a murder contraption for thousands of people. That’s not just “evil for the sake of evil”, which can be fun if handled correctly, that’s the laziest explanation for any piece of lore or information I’ve ever seen, and I am a Star Wars fans for crying out loud. He may as well just not have given an answer, and I’m baffled as to how this series could have gotten this far into production without anyone objecting to the antagonist having forgotten his motivation.
The show spiraled from there, with the following arcs, Fairy Dance and Deathgun, being even worse than the mediocre lows of Aincrad. They range from disgusting in their portrayal of sexual violence towards women, to just boring. It takes Kirito and Leafa six episodes to reach the World Tree, that is absurd. They introduce a completely new villain who immediately disappears, so these six episodes are wasted. Bland characters are introduced just to take up more room, when the already existing side characters had no room to develop.
At this point in the series, every dialogue scene is contrived to keep cleavage or a woman bending over in frame to the degree that it is distracting. This isn’t even fanservice because it’s just left out on the screen so that if the audience gets bored of the stale dialogue or plot they can get their fix. And that’s not even talking about how Asuna gets shafted in this arc, or how Suguha’s only character arc is how being in love with your brother is bad, but she’s still going to orbit around him with the not-harem for the next three seasons.
SAO was initially a solid viewing experience, and after Fairy Dance, it was one of the most boring seasons of anime that I have seen. Not even plain bad, because I can appreciate something bad enough to entertain. Sword Art Online II wasn’t just mediocre, it was so lacking in entertainment value. It just managed to lose all of the aspects that had made it appealing in the first half of the first arc.
The strength of your opening episodes can only take you so far, as we learned with The God of High School. Whereas that had no substance underneath its oozing of style, SAO was juggling all of the pieces to make a competent show and just dropped the balls one by one. The lesson in disappointment from Sword Art Online is that your premise might be adequate and your story compelling, but if you ever get so high off your own fumes, remember to cut out any parts about incest and maybe to give your antagonist an actual motivation. Also the lesson is to watch Sword Art Online Abridged, as that is the definitive way to experience this story.