Sword Art Online... You know, at one point, I was actually excited about watching this show, but as the show went on, and its problems became more and more apparent, I grew a burning hatred for everything about it that it began to define me at one point. Word of advice: Just because something is popular does NOT mean it's good (Just look at Justin Bieber, Twilight, and Call of Duty), as you will learn the hard way with this.
First of all, let me start with that it's about. Sword Art Online is separated into two story arcs. Episodes 1 through 14 is the Aincrad arc. The story is set in the year 2022, the latest VR technology known as NerveGear was released alongside the titular MMORPG. The main character, 14-year old Kazuto Kirigaya (also known as Kirito) is one of the game's 10,000 owners after having beta-tested the game prior. What kind of company produces only 10,000 copies of a game? That's not good business, if you ask me. Anyway, upon starting the game, Kirito learns that there's no logout function. This wasn't a design flaw, but intentionally done by the creator, Akihiko Kayaba. He also explains that the players will die for real if they try to have their NerveGears removed or shut down, or if they die in the game. The only way to escape is by completing the game.
What could've been an enjoyable VR experience becomes nothing but a struggle of life and death. Meanwhile, what could've been an actually good show became a godawful show. What's wrong with this show, you ask? Plenty of reasons.
Let's talk about the characters, mainly the protagonists: For starters, these are not characters. These are bland, unoriginal, one-dimensional cardboard cutouts.
Kazuto/Kirito is basically your standard Gary Stu wish fullfillment protagonist. He has the highest stats in the game, gets all the best skills and items, always wears black clothing to show that he's this dark and emo anti-hero, bends the rules to his advantage to win every battle, and is desired by almost every single female. In other words, being this guy is basically every single socially awkward hardcore gamer's wet dream. He's the main character so everyone that isn't him matters none. No matter what anyone tries to say, Kirito is not smart, complex, or badass character. He's a walking example of the writer's complete and utter laziness.
Asuna Yuuki is probably the worst of the two. She's so stupid, she ends up making Bella Swan from Twilight seem not as stupid in comparison. At first, she seems fine, but as the series progresses and she become a full-time main character, she comes off as your typical tsundere and contributes absolutely nothing at all other than make Kirito do stuff for her and drag him into being a even worse character than usual. Oh and guess what? She's supposedly one of the top players in SAO, but all of her skill points is maxed out only to her cooking stat. That's right, no focusing on any particular stats that would be helpful to progress through the game like strength, vitality, defense, agility, or what have you. The only worthwhile use Asuna has is in the kitchen. To this day, I still laugh at the fact people actually refer to Asuna as a strong female character. In fact, anyone who thinks Asuna is "a strong female character" makes me assume that they actually don't know what that even means. I've seen a good amount of actual strong female characters to know full well that Asuna is most definitely not one.
About a fifth into the series run, the story becomes less about surviving in a game of life and death and more about giving Kirito a harem. Like I mentioned before, it's a given rule for any female that cross paths with Kirito to instantly fall for him. Why the chick falls for him is never explained. It sums down to "I love Kirito-kun because" and that's it. No reason at all. And when you put Kirito and Asuna together, then it gets really bad. It's bad enough these two are bland characters. But when their romance (For lack of a more suitable word) starts, it's just as bland. They pretty much do nothing that even implies romance between the two: She hangs out with him for awhile, shares sandwiches with him, whacks him whenever he accidentally gropes her. An episode or two later, they're in love and they're married. Uh, what? There's no buildup to it that it comes out of nowhere, and what's worse is that romance completely overshadows everything. I mean, THAT is the plot that Sword Art Online focuses around: Not about 10,000 people fighting for their lives in a virtual world, it's about two people's romance. They selfishly waste two and a half episodes on their honeymoon while everyone else is off progressing through the game. Our protagonists, everyone. Who cares about escaping the game? The script is pretty much godawful, the worst offender being episode 13, where Asuna spews out stuff about how meeting Kirito changed her life and how she believes meeting him was the very reason she put the NerveGear on. It's completely unbelievable and comes off as nothing but BS. Really, George Lucas wrote better romance in the Star Wars prequels than this.
Later on, they adopt this AI girl as their daughter. Her name is Yui and she's arguably competing with Asuna as the worst female. She has absolutely no character and serves no purpose other than desperately try too hard to act cute and be the moeblob that panders to whatever otaku audience. Also nothing agains her voice actors. I'm sure they do a good jo bportraying the character but mother of God, Yui sounds horrible. It's like that extremely high-pitched mousey moeblob voice, only alot more grating. She's easily unbearable when she's talking. Like, please stop talking.
Now Akihiko Kayaba, the evil mastermind that is responsible for the deaths of around a third of the game's population: When Kirito finally confronts him and asks what was his motivation for doing this, his answer sums up to "I forgot." He even states that he probably had none at all. In the end. SAO's purpose is completely negated and makes you feel like so much time was wasted and so many people lost their lives for absolutely nothing. If that wasn't the most trollish slap-in-the-face since the last few episodes of Blood-C, I don't know what is.
There are only a few characters I like, but they are barely seen at all, let alone given any character development because the story follows only Kirito and considers no one else important. Klein (The guy with the red headband) is the first friend Kirito makes once he enters SAO. You would expect him to be Kirito's best bro or something of the sort, but he's only seen for 5, maybe 6 episodes total. Silica (the loli with the dragon) is one of the more popular characters and she only has a screentime total of one episode and a few cameos here and there. In fact, her only notable scene is walking into the same room with Kirito in her undies. Why even bother introducing these characters if you're not ever going to develop them? Matter of fact, I don't even know why Silica is popular. Because she's a loli. That's basically her only appeal. Same goes for Lisbeth, a blacksmith player. What's her appeal? None that I can think of. There's no point in liking any of these females at all. There's nothing to their character other than she's in love with Kirito-kun. And I think at some point, the author even mentioned that it was hard for him to write a female that doesn't fall for Kirito.
The plot: I've already described the plot. That's it. The rest of the show doesn't ever expand on that premise save for a few minuscule mentions of how many players are still alive. Aside from that, the premise is mostly ignored to the point that it's nonexistant. In fact, through the course of the series, we see the characters with their items and equipment changed only in between episodes. You'd think that a show based in an MMORPG would be focused around character customization, equipment upgrading, skill sets, etc., but it's never elaborated upon. For example, Kirito somehow pulls a dual-wielding skill out of nowhere. How and when he acquired it is never elaborated. He even says it randomly appeared out of nowhere in his skill list. In fact, that's a constant problem: We're only told about this number of played died, but it's never shown. Like the writers just wants us to take their word for it.
Obviously, when we're dealing with a show where anyone can die so you'd expect there'd be some suspense and drama. Nope. Everytime someone dies, the drama falls flat because we haven't known the character long enough to care enough for him or her. A half of an episode isn't enough to for me to know one character! The only "tragic" death, according to this series, is Yui's. When she "dies", the protagonists bawls their eyes out. They only knew her for less than a few days in-universe, two episodes overall. And it's instantly negated because they manage to salvage her data and convert her into an in-game item. Yui's character arc was one of the worst episodes of the series because of its contrived, weak, forced, sorry excuse for drama. In fact, any sense of suspense is gone when you realize that Kirito will win the fight by pulling straight out of the ass some brand new skill that was never seen before.
The second arc (Episodes 15 through 25) titled Fairy Dance (although you don't really see any fairies dancing until like the last episode), is much, much worse as the many faults are present at a much grander scale. The setting here is ALfheim Online, which was developed using SAO as its base. When Kirito first logs into ALO, he finds that all his items and stats from SAO are carried over. So instead of starting over from Level 1, he becomes overpowered at start. It shows nothing but laziness in terms of game development in-universe and writing out-of. The story switches from "struggle for survival" to "save the princess," but there's no real sense of emergency as ALO has a working logout function and no one dies for real if they die in-game. Also, Kirito does mostly everything except his self-stated objective, like it's the last thing on his to-do list.
And just when you couldn't get enough of Yui, she comes back. That's right, she's going Turbo! I mentioned that his items carried over to ALO, but all but Yui can't be read by the game system. She acts as a guide fairy to Kirito, kinda like Navi from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, only even more annoying because she knows about stuff that she shouldn't and it only works whenever the plot demands it.
The Big Bad of Fairy Dance, Nobuyuki Sugou, is way worse than Kayaba in terms of being an effective villain. First of all, this guy is more of a psychotic, pedophilic manchild than a real villain. The first thing he does when we're introduced to him is outright inform Kazuto, "Hi, I'm the villain." Apparently, subtlety isn't his forte. Also, the fanbase clearly does not hate him for his villainy. His plan basically involves manipulating the memories of the few hundred, Asuna included, that didn't escape SAO. But that's not the reason why the fans want this guy's head on a stick. The most heinous, evil, dastardly, utterly descipable crime against humanity that makes this guy lower than scum is molesting Asuna every chance he gets. To the fanbase, Sugou is Hitler compared to Kayaba.
Meanwhile, Asuna is reduced to nothing more than the worst kind of damsel-in-distress. She does more of nothing other than be Sugou's sex toy. She doesn't even try to defend herself, she just sits there and let him have his way with her body. She tries to escape on one ocassion, but ends up getting tentacle raped (Oh, you heard me right) and recaptured just as quickly. Which brings me to my next point. This show is utterly misogynistic to the point that it's outright offensive. The first arc is bad about it, but the second arc is where it is almost blatantly shown in your face. At some point near the climax of the arc, Sugou attempts to rape Asuna in the game right in front of Kirito. This whole scene turns a revenge fantasy and it only serves to make the viewer hate the villain even more. Which is not how to even write a villain. Not only that, but when Kirito gets his chance to put a stop to Sugou, he brutally tortures him without any sense of remorse and even commits physical pain to him. While Sugou did basically do the same thing to him, Kirito does the same to him in an even worse scale and Asuna does not bat an eye about it. In fact, she's not the least bit traumatized over that she was sexually assaulted because Kirito saved her so all is good. This is obviously used for trivialization and shows that the author clearly had no business in even toying with such a thing. If you can't write attempted rape without a serious meaning or purpose other than "all bad guys are rapists", then don't do it.
As Asuna plays damsel-in-distress, her role as a main character is given to Kazuto's younger sister (actually cousin), Suguha/Leafa. Aside from her huge boobies, she is a somewhat better character than Asuna in that her chemistry with Kazuto/Kirito is actually believable. But her character falls apart because of one fatal flaw: She falls victim to the pitfall of being a female character in SAO, and therefore fall in love with Kirito for no reason (That's right, we're approaching incest territory), only here it's different. She's in love with both Kazuto and Kirito, but she's unaware that they're one and the same. Same goes for Kazuto/Kirito, who's unaware that Leafa is Suguha. So it becomes more of a guessing game as to when they're going to find out, and when they do, the damage is already done and you don't really care anymore.
Animation: Well, the scenery is nice. That's the only good thing I can say. Character designs, not so much. In case you've figures out, Kazuto/Kirito is an emo antihero, so he dons clothing that is as black as his soul. Black hair, black eyes, Hell, even all but one of his weapons are colored black. Talk about uninspired. Most characters are drawn with only one facial structure. For example, Take Kirito's design, add light-brown waist-length hair, light-brown eyes, and average-size breasts and you've got Asuna. In fact, the moeblob looks like she was recycled from a previous character's design. The action scenes aren't compelling at all, but made cheaply and lazily with single still-frames in almost every fight. There are a few exceptions, but it only means that the animation staff felt like wasting their effort and budget on facepalm-worthy humor instead of quality fighting scenes.
There's only little I can say about the music. I've heard good things about Yuki Kajiura's score and her music here is pretty much the only thing about Sword Art Online worth mentioning. Although it gets very repetitive most of the time. Only one track has stuck to my mind and it only plays whenever Kirito is about to win a fight. It's a shame that it's sadly wasted on something so awful.
Now the very worst fault that Sword Art Online has is its very fanbase itself. Usually, I won't talk about a series' fanbase when judging a series, but this is a special case because of their' foolish blindness to blatantly obvious flaws that even the brain-dead can find. You will find lots of users and their so-called reviews here that praise this show. Those guys are the suckers who was unfortunate to be sold only by its premise, which is interesting but has been done before (Hello, .hack franchise), and ignore everything else. The premise can only go so far, but how it is executed is what really matters.
This show has the stupidest fanbase ever since they probably like anything that looks like a terribly written fanfic written by a teenager. And from what I've heard, Kawahara wrote the first novel (or maybe the preliminary story) when he was a teen. It definitely shows. There is absolutely no effort put into this story and characters whatsoever. And once again, he admits that he basically wrote the story without even applying any form of logic. I'm beginning to think that he didn't write SAO just to tell a story, but so that it can become popular for all the wrong reasons, sell tens and thousands of volumes, and leave quality works underappreciated and selling poorly. Basically, a cheap cash-in. In other words, it's no better than moe junk.
Thank you, Reki Kawahara. Modern anime has gone down the toilet because of your actions.
Sword Art Online is basically a textbook example of how to make an awful anime by relying on wish fullfillment and asspulls to tell the story. It is a power fantasy: Its message is basically telling you to reject your own reality in favor for their fantasy. I think that message is a load of bollocks and shows that some people who falls for this is in need of a reality check. Want an actual MMO anime that does everything that Sword Art Online fails at in that it actually develops its characters, doesn't cater to the lowest common denominator, and doesn't insult your intelligence right in your face? I recommend watching .hack//SIGN for its psychological aspects and meaningfully-written characters and Log Horizon for its world-building aspects and actually thought-out MMO functionality. It's hard for me to actually fathom how this show is so highly rated because it does EVERYTHING wrong on so many levels. The only thing it does right is make itself, and Kawahara, into a complete joke.