You’ve probably seen many posts about 2022 being the year of Sword Art Online. And that is true – the game within the story launches in November of 2022. Although it may not seem like that long ago, it’s already been almost 10 years since the anime first premiered, and the anime was what got most of us into this franchise in the first place. Based on Reki Kawahara’s Sword Art Online light novel series, which currently has 26 volumes with over 26 million copies in circulation, the anime by A-1 Pictures premiered on July 8 of 2012. But, according to an interview with Kawahara, shown during Aniplex Online Fest 2021, he started writing the series in the fall of 2001 – making the series already 20 years old.
The Birth of Sword Art Online Light Novel Series
Kawahara initially planned to write the series as a competition entry for the 2002 ASCII Media Works Dengeki Game Novel Prize. However, the series surpassed the page limit, so he didn’t submit it. Instead, he just published it as a web novel under the pseudonym Fumio Kunori. As time went on, he added three more main arcs (Fairy Dance, Phantom Bullet, Alicization), and some short stories (mainly the compilation of the light novel’s 8th volume). The first arc of the series is titled Aincrad. In 2008, he joined the competition again by writing the Accel World, which takes place in the same universe of the Sword Art Online series. Kawahara won the grand prize this time, and as a result, ASCII Media Works published light novel versions of Sword Art Online and Accel World. The first volume came out on April 10, 2009.
The infamous chapter 16.5 is also one of the things many SAO fans mention when talking about the series. Originally published on a secret section of the old website, Kawahara later claimed it wasn’t canon.
Sword Art Online – Inspiration
According to Reki Kawahara, he wrote the Sword Art Online series because he loves video games. For him, playing video games is not an illness for social life or just a way to escape reality. His vision when it comes to writing is for people to see games in a positive light. The protagonist of the series is Kirito (CV Yoshitsugu Matsuoka). Kawahara mentioned in the past that Kirito is partly based on his own gaming habits – especially when it comes to forming parties, as they both tend to play solo when playing games. He also wrote the female characters spontaneously and didn’t base them on real-life people, but he states that for him, Asuna’s (Haruka Tomatsu) character is too perfect.
The Beginning of the Series
Sword Art Online series started with the Aincrad arc, which, as we stated, was set in 2022. It had a total of 14 episodes, which aired from July 8 to October 6, 2012. The first arc adapted the first two volumes of the light novel and concluded with the Fairy Dance arc (third and fourth volume), which actually takes place during 2024-2025 and had a total of 11 episodes.
You can read the official synopsis below:
In the year 2022, gamers rejoice as Sword Art Online – a VRMMORPG (Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) like no other – debuts, allowing players to take full advantage of the ultimate in gaming technology: NerveGear, a system that allows users to completely immerse themselves in a wholly realistic gaming experience. But when the game goes live, the elation of the players quickly turns to horror as they discover that, for all its amazing features, SAO is missing one of the most basic functions of any MMORPG – a log-out button. Now trapped in the virtual world of Aincrad, their bodies held captive by NerveGear in the real world, users are issued a chilling ultimatum: conquer all one hundred floors of Aincrad to regain your freedom. But in the warped world of SAO, “game over” means certain death – both virtual and real…Yen Press
In 2013, a movie titled Sword Art Online: Extra Edition premiered in Japan. It serves as an OVA and it serves as a recap, with Kirito retelling the events of the first two arcs.
SAO Season 2 and Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online
The second season of Sword Art Online started with the Phantom Bullet arc of the light novel, which takes place from 2025 to 2026. It aired from July 5 to October 4, 2014, and had a total of 14 episodes. The series adapted volumes 5 and 6 of the light novel, and it features a new type of VRMMORPG. The new arc also introduces some new characters – who will later join the recurring cast.
The continuation of season 2 takes place in the year 2026. It started with a 3-episode side story called Calibur arc, which you can find in volume 8 of the original light novel series. After that, the series continued with volume 7 of the light novel series, called Mother’s Rosario arc, which had a total of 7 episodes. The story revolves around a skilled girl who is using the full dive technology for her own medication. Some secrets about Kayaba Akihiko were also revealed in this arc.
A spin-off series titled Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online aired in Spring 2018, and it had a total of 12 episodes. It is based on Keichii Sigsawa’s light novel series, which was written under Reki Kawahara’s supervision. The setting of the story takes place in 2026, after the events in the Phantom Bullet arc.
You can also read the synopsis of the spin-off series below:
Karen Kohiruimaki is a college student who stands at an imposing six feet. While her complex about her height makes it hard for her to make friends in the real world, the VRMMO Gun Gale Online changes everything. Now equipped with her ideal “mini” avatar and clad in a pink battle suit, Karen is ready to shoot up the world of GGO as Llenn! Before long, she meets the beautiful Pitohui, and the two rare female players become fast friends. Little does Llenn know that this friendship is the key to her entry in the first-ever Squad Jam, a team-based battle royale that echoes the famous Bullet of Bullets tournament…Yen Press
In 2017, 3 years after Sword Art Online II, a new movie titled Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale premiered in the Japanese theatres. The story is an anime original, and although it’s not based on a light novel the screenplay was still written by Reki Kawahara. The anime film is about the creation of a new technology that features Augmented Reality. The movie, directed by Tomoko Ito and animated by A-1 Pictures, earned 4.3 billion yen – around 38.3 million USD.
Reki Kawahara also wrote a short book titled Hopeful Chant, which serves as the prequel to the events in Ordinal Scale, and was distributed to the people who watched the anime film in Japan. He also wrote a novel titled Cordial Cords, a sequel to Ordinal Scale. Cordial Cords was bundled with the Blu-ray/DVD release of the movie, which came out on September 27, 2021.
Another thing that you could notice in the Ordinal Scale is the improvement of the animation, and it gave us some amazing battle sequences.
In 2022, the world of virtual reality was upended by the arrival of a new invention from a genius programmer, Akihiko Kayaba. Called NerveGear, it was the first full-dive system and with it, came endless possibilities to VRMMORPGs.
In 2026, a new machine called the Augma is developed to compete against the NerveGear and its successor, the Amusphere. A next-gen wearable device, the Augma doesn’t have a full-dive function like its predecessors. Instead, it uses Augmented Reality (AR) to get players into the game. It is safe, user-friendly and lets users play while they are conscious, making it an instant hit on the market. The most popular game on the system is “Ordinal Scale” (aka: OS), an ARMMORPG developed exclusively for the Augma.
Asuna and the gang have already been playing OS for a while, by the time Kirito decides to join them. They’re about to find out that Ordinal Scale isn’t all fun and games…Crunchyroll
Return to TV Anime Format
After a year, the franchise came back to Japanese television through Sword Art Online: Alicization, which takes place after the events in Ordinal Scale, in 2026. It adapted volumes 9 to 14 of the original light novel series and had a total of 24 episodes. The Alicization arcs include:
- Alicization Beginning
- Alicization Running
- Alicization Turning
- Alicization Rising
- Alicization Dividing
- Alicization Uniting
The project aims to create a new type of artificial soul – as opposed to intelligence, and it poses some really interesting questions about ethics and morality, especially when it comes to AI development.
You can read the synopsis of the Alicization arc below:
Kirito awakens in a vast, fantastical forest filled with towering trees. In his search for clues to the truth of his surroundings, he encounters a young boy who seems to know him. He ought to be a simple NPC, but the depth of his emotions seem no different than a human. As they search for the boy’s parents, Kirito finds a peculiar memory returning to him. A memory from his own childhood, of this boy and a girl, too, with golden hair, and a name he should have never forgotten–Alice.Yen Press
A Change of Pace in the Story
Sword Art Online: Alicization anime ended in March 2019, and it had a total of 24 episodes. The continuation of the series aired in October of the same year with the title Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld. These two are not separate seasons and should be looked at as a whole, as they explore the same arc and same themes.
Compared to the previous seasons, the atmosphere in Alicization anime was much darker. For the first time, Kirito loses the will to fight and has to rely on others to survive.
The Ending of Alicization
Almost all of the characters from previous seasons have cameos in War of Underworld, one of which is Konno Yuuki, as well as some Ordinal Scale characters. These scenes manage to successfully bind the story while highlighting just how big Kirito’s world has become. SAO: Alicization – War of Underworld adapted volumes 15 to 18 of the original light novel series, and had a total of 23 episodes (episodes 25 to 47 of Alicization arc). It adapted the four last books of Alicization:
- Alicization Invading
- Alicization Exploding
- Alicization Awakening
- Alicization Lasting
The Alicization arc is the longest story in the Sword Art Online series, with a total of 10 light novel volumes and 47 anime episodes. The season ended with the texts saying that “Kirito will return”. This does not refer to the Progressive movies – but is instead a hint of what’s to come. To sum things up – Alice is now a big part of Kirito and Asuna’s life.
Some things were perhaps not well explained in the anime. For example, how Alice escaped RATH – she requested that she be delivered to Kirito’s house while using her AI capabilities. Kirito’s confusion when he’s around Alice mainly stems from the fact that she is the very materialization of his ideals, the ones he first touches upon in the Fairy Dance arc.
Moon Cradle – Game Adaptation
So far, the anime adaptation of Sword Art Online reached the Alicization arc and still hasn’t adapted the Moon Cradle arc. Volumes 19 and 20 of the series focus on the side story that takes place in the Underworld, after the war.
This arc was adapted in the Sword Art Online: Unleash Blading (formerly known as Sword Art Online: Alicization Rising Steel) game. The game changed its name because it will incorporate the original story of the Moon Cradle arc through quests and cut scenes, which was announced at the recent Tokyo Game Show 2021.
Take note that the Moon Cradle arc first took place before the events of Sword Art Online: Alicization War of Underworld episode 23. The ending scene of this chapter in the anime was greatly influenced by the events in the Moon Cradle arc. The mythical beast named “The Abyssal Horror”, which appeared at the ending of episode 23 is a villain from the Moon Cradle arc. Kirito and Asuna fought this monster many times in this arc but they can’t kill it because it always escapes them whenever it is about to die. They were able to kill the monster in episode 23 because Alice’s osmanthus flowers incinerate its opponent down to its smallest particles. The person behind the creation of the fighter jets we saw in the episode was also Kirito. However, Asuna and Kirito don’t remember a single thing about the events that take place in Moon Cradle. The only person who knows what happened is the “Star King Kirito”, who appeared in episode 22 of SAO: Alicization – WoU.
Sword Art Online: Unital Ring
The next main arc after the Alicization is the Unital Ring, set after the Moon Cradle arc in the light novel. The ending scene of Sword Art Online: Alicization: War of Underworld episode 23 is the prologue of the Unital Ring arc. In the Alicization light novels, this scene is part of a chapter titled “Prologue 3”, which teases the next main arc, Unital Ring. This arc starts with the 21st volume of the original light novel series and also serves as a bridge to the events in Accel World, which take place in the year 2065.
A fun tidbit is a symbol called “The Insignia of the Star King”, shown in the final episode of War of the Underworld – Kirito’s Night Sky Sword, Asuna’s Radiant Light Sword, surrounded by Eugeo’s Blue roses, and Alice’s Osmanthus flowers. This symbol is the first hint that the story is slowly approaching Accel World. In Accel World, this symbol appeared when Kuroyukihime used the program called “SSS Order”.
Unital Ring is the first arc of the Sword Art Online series that was not published online. As of now, it covers volumes 21, 23, 24, 25, and 26. Volume 22, titled Kiss and Fly consists of short side stories that took place in the past. Unital Ring arc is about a game that forces all accounts from different games to log in there.
You can check out the synopsis of the Unital Ring arc below:
A year has passed since Kirito and Asuna’s return from the Underworld. With them is Alice, who has been given a physical body. But their peace is quickly broken when the three are suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar game, Unital Ring. This new world is a survival MMO that fuses together every VRMMO created with the Seed program. As soon as it starts, Kirito finds himself with nothing but his underwear. Now, he’s got to challenge a mysterious VRMMOSVG under desperate circumstances!Yen Press
The ending of SAO: Alicization – WoU teased the “Inter-Intelligence War”. However, there is still no information about this in the available light novel volumes. What we know so far is that the story is still ongoing, with volume 26 as the latest. In this volume, Kirito, together with Asuna, Alice, and new characters are having their own struggles in the Underworld, while Sinon, together with Silica and their other friends are having their own battle in the Unital Ring game. Since the “Inter-Intelligence War” was teased, we might be able to see it soon enough in the future light novel volumes.
Sword Art Online – Progressive and Games
Reki Kawahara is also writing a light novel titled Sword Art Online: Progressive, which retells the events in the Aincrad arc while also including Asuna’s point of view. It currently has 8 volumes. A movie adaptation of the Progressive’s first volume premiered on October 30, 2021, in Japan with the title Sword Art Online: Progressive -Aria of a Starless Night–, and topped the Japanese Box Office revenue during the opening weekend, earning over 349 million yen (~US$3.04 million). A movie sequel titled Sword Art Online: Progressive – Kuraki Yuuyami no Scherzo, which adapts the fourth volume of Progressive will be screened in cinemas in 2022 – this year.
The Sword Art Online franchise also has quite a few games. The full list can be found below:
- Sword Art Online: Infinity Moment – Non-canon story that revolves around the fight for floors 76-100 of Aincrad.
- Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment – Set in an alternative timeline as Sword Art Online: Infinity Moment. It also introduces a new character, Philia, (Takemiya Kotone – C.V. Yui Ishikawa).
- Sword Art Online: Lost Song – This is the first game that allows players to play other characters aside from Kirito. The game’s setting is on Alfheim Online.
- Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization – The story takes place in 2026 and is set in Ainground – players cannot die in real life if they die in the game, but it has a very similar feel to the SAO game itself
- Accel World VS. Sword Art Online: Millenium Twilight – A crossover game between Sword Art Online and Accel World.
- Sword Art Online: Fatal Bullet – A game that lets you switch to “Kirito Mode” to play a different storyline. The game takes place in Gun Gale Online.
- Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris – It adapts the first half of the Alicization arc with some game original scenes.
- Sword Art Online: End World – Another Aincrad game, where you can form different parties and clear dungeon bosses along with mobs.
- Sword Art Online: Code Register – Connects GGO, SAO, and ALO.
- Sword Art Online: Progress Link – Fantasy game that took place in ALO. It was terminated in 2016.
- Sword Art Online: Memory Defrag – A game where you can do quests based on the original Sword Art Online story. Unfortunately, the game ended its service in 2021.
- Sword Art Online: Integral Factor – Players can create their own story to clear the Sword Art Online game.
- Sword Art Online: Unleash Blading – Formerly known as Sword Art Online Alicization Lycoris. The game allows the players to play as Kirito’s character to explore the vast world of Underworld.
- The Blackswordsman – A game that allows you to follow stories in Aincrad from the original anime for you to be able to clear it.
- Sword of Fellows – A Sword Art Online board game, played with cards and dice.
Looking back on 2012, when the first anime adaptation of Sword Art Online aired, it is really scary how quickly technology advances. However, the VR devices in Sword Art Online are still not a reality – even though we have reached the infamous 2022. If this franchise managed to accomplish anything, it’s raising awareness about VR tech and allowing fans to become interested in it. Full-dive technology may still be impossible, but it is something most gamers (and quite a few SAO fans) would love to see.
On September 14, 2021, Sword Art Online held a live stream titled “Virtual Completion Announcement” in Virtual Shibuya. It is a digital space that utilizes Virtual Reality technology – as an ode to the SAO franchise. Virtual reality meetings use the same principles as the one Virtual Shibuya uses. You can choose your own avatar and move around a certain digital space. You can do this even if you are at home as long as you have a VR headset. As a fan, this was something I really enjoyed seeing, as it hints at all the possibilities.
There are still a few months to go until November 6 – the official in-story launch date for the Sword Art Online game. It will be interesting to see if we can expect any kind of announcement on the day. Overall, it would be poetic, especially since this franchise had quite an impact on the anime community.
All screenshots via Funimation
©川原 礫／アスキー・メディアワークス／SAO Project