FEATURE: A Beginner’s Guide to Sword Art Online

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Sword Art Online


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… hello, PROF. BOOTY, and welcome to Sword Art Online! This expansive, enthralling franchise escorts adventurers into a virtual reality game unlike any other. The townships are bustling, the combat is intense and the stakes are high. Some players might even say they’re a little too high, but hey, sometimes you’ve got to live a little (and die a little, too).


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Whether you’re a newbie or simply want to refresh your memory and defrag your hard drive, this beginner’s guide will prove invaluable, or at the very least, informative. Upon completion, you will be rewarded with the READING IS FUN achievement and a +5 boost to your intellect.


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Excellent, then let’s start!



From Humble Beginnings


Sword Art Online


Many of Japan’s hottest franchises originated in an unlikely manner but there’s something particularly inspiring about this one.


Creator Reki Kawahara first wrote Sword Art Online in his mid-20s with the intention of submitting it for the 2002 ASCII Media Works Dengeki Game Novel Prize. His ambitious tale exceeded the word limit so he would self-publish that year, most suitably, as a web novel. The freedom of the platform allowed him to experiment and grow, and he would progressively add more chapters and arcs to his fledgling project.


His career would receive a shot in the arm when he returned to the Dengeki Novel Prize in 2008, this time with the first edition of his Accel World series. The rest, as they say, is history, and Sword Art Online was then republished in print with an anime series debuting in 2012. The franchise would become one of the most significant and prophetic of its time, laying the groundwork for digital isekai to thrive to this day.


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Please do not report me to the game master for bandying about the word isekai (a subgenre that refers to being transported to another world). It is an apt qualifier when one considers the exactitude of the term, and though the protagonists do not physically manifest in a new realm, they do indeed find themselves far, far from home. Should you want to debate this further I only accept duels, and only on Saturday nights, as that’s alright for fighting.


Anyway, the sentimental takeaway from all of this is that Kawahara would have to wait almost an entire decade for his labors to bear fruit. It’s worth keeping in mind the next time your life’s work doesn’t catch on immediately. Feeling good? I sure am.


Story Mode


Sword Art Online


In the near future, an immersive virtual reality technology known as NerveGear has taken gaming to new heights. It is a headpiece equipped with transmitters capable of simulating realistic senses, making the user feel as though they are actually existing in another world. The mastermind behind this wonderful device, Akihiko Kayaba, is a genius inventor and game designer, however, the corresponding software never quite lived up to his vision. That was until he launched his magnum opus, Sword Art Online, an epic MMORPG set in the land of Aincrad.


The initial print is limited to 10,000 copies, fast making it the hottest ticket in Japan.


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Initial impressions are positive, with a sensation akin to actually being given a second body, a second life… a second chance. It’s everything the fanbase could have asked for and more. After hours of thrills, it can be hard to take a break and return to the mundane rigors of real life. This is particularly true in this game, as scanning through the menu reveals that the option to log out is inexplicably missing — and they only now discover this once they’re in-game.


Bewilderment turns to shock, and then to dread.


Sword Art Online


The terrifying realization of how helpless players are becomes apparent. They’re stuck in this state of suspended reality, incapable of fleeing their polygonal prison or communicating with the outside world. What’s worse than being AFK? How about being Away From Life?! As panic begins to spread all of the players are summoned to the central plaza. Kabaya descends from the skies, adorned in a sinister cloak. He reveals that this is not a bug, but a deliberate feature — typical game designer, right? — as he intends to force the game be played to completion.


To make things even more dire he has implemented permadeath on all player avatars with no chance of revival. To perish in-game means to expire in the real world. The NerveGear cannot be forcibly removed, nor the power source be cut off, or else the same fatal consequences will apply.


Ugh, this is definite cause to demand a refund! First off, though, how does one escape?


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The layout of Aincrad is divided into 100 floors, each with a boss that must be defeated. Doing so will grant access to the next floor until the final boss is overcome at the top. The only way to survive is by fighting your way out, and yet, each skirmish could be lethal. Only the most courageous will dare set foot on the front lines, clearing uncharted territory and clashing with fierce monsters. As a final existential blow, the players are stripped of their character models, revealing their actual appearance. The one chance to be adorable has been cruelly snatched away from under their nose.


Fear not, PROF. BOOTY, for this tutorial will equip you with the knowledge you require to keep breathing and return to the safety of your bedroom. Hold X to skip, or to type xxxxxxxxxxxx endlessly on your keyboard.


The People of Aincrad


Sword Art Online


For the most part, Sword Art Online (SAO) resembles many other MMORPGs. It has mobs of beasts such as kobolds, dragons, boars (before you ask, no, killing boars is not an efficient way to gain XP) and NPCs that will offer aid to weary travelers. That said, there is no magic system, with high-level combat reliant upon mastery of the blade. There are a variety of sword skills on offer that can produce critical strikes, dictated by pinpoint application of timing and movement.


If you want a good example of how to implement this you should follow the lead of Kazuto Kirigaya (Kirito). Known to some as the Black Swordsman, he is a somber, reserved solo player with a strong sense of justice. Though he will form temporary allegiances when necessary, he prefers to work alone for the most part. This has given him something of a notorious reputation. As one of only 1,000 beta testers he has an advantage over those trying out SAO for the first time; a point of contention among those who are suspicious of the knowledge he is hiding. Indeed, there is a percentage of the player base who have labeled him a “beater” — a derogatory term that creates distrust, even maliciousness towards him.


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Petty as it sounds, you’ve got to remember that lives are at stake here.


Another fine sample of swordplay can be seen in Asuna Yuuki. Hesitant at first to brave the odds, she eventually resolves to win her freedom from the clutches of SAO. Her natural acumen for fencing allows her to rise through the ranks quickly, even joining up with an influential guild. She will exchange pleasantries with Kirito for the most part, however, hers is a more pragmatic approach, and as such, the two don’t always see eye to eye. Underneath the veil of primacy she has created in-game, she is a kind and considerate person, and she too feels compelled to help those in need.


Sword Art Online


Curious about guilds? How prudent of you! They are an excellent way to form lasting bonds with other players and can make dungeon crawling much safer and more manageable. There are various ability levels and standards of entry, with Asuna’s Knights of the Blood Oath or the Divine Dragons Alliance being particularly aspirational. These are the hardcore raiders and the ones who stand the best chance of toppling Kabaya.


Should you be hoping for something a little less grueling you might consider a smaller guild like the Moonlit Black Cats or Golden Apple. Here, collaboration and camaraderie are at the fore, allowing for a less monolithic experience. Alternatively, you could just throw morality to the breeze and join the ranks of a Player Killing guild such as Laughing Coffin. As their moniker suggests, their M.O. involves the torture and slaughter of other players. Does… that sound like fun to you, PROF. BOOTY? If so I’d appreciate it if you unfriended me immediately. 



Rules and Boundaries


Sword Art Online


Nobody enjoys a game that is unfair, particularly when your neck is on the line. That is why SAO features a set of limitations to ensure an even playing field.


Each player’s standing in society is indicated by a cursor over their head that can be viewed freely. At first, the cursor is green, showing that this particular player is neutral and has not committed any notable crime. Abuse of the gameplay, such as theft or even murder, will turn the cursor orange — an exhortation to others that this player is dangerous.


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Due to the real-world ramifications, Player Killing is considered especially heinous, and there are griefers in SAO who revel in the opportunity to bring misery and suffering upon others. Alas, not even the threat of death itself can make people behave online.


Townships are ordained a safe haven where player vs player antics are theoretically impossible, though there are underhanded ways to get around this. Take heed of these warnings if you seek to make it out of Aincrad alive. Teamwork is critical, just be cautious of who you trust. You don’t want your tour of the front lines to come to an untimely end when a shady comrade plunges a knife in your back — it’s hard to log a complaint ticket from beyond the grave, after all. 



BONUS UNLOCK: Theater Mode


Sword Art Online


A tale as ambitious as this one couldn’t just be limited to the small screen, and Sword Art Online has several movies to its name. So far, four full-length features have been created, beginning with Sword Art Online EXTRA EDITION in 2013. This movie acts as a retelling of the events of the first season as the characters reflect on the ordeals they have undergone while reminiscing by the pool. Through this firsthand account, we also gain insight into their motivations and regrets.


2017’s Sword Art Online The Movie: Ordinal Scale would come next, set between the second and third seasons. In it, our heroes must unravel the troubling mystery surrounding the eponymous AR program, Ordinal Scale. Despite taking place in the real world, the stakes are no less deadly — and even worse, it’s a harrowing reminder of how much more taxing cardio is outside of virtual reality. Sword Art Online The Movie: Ordinal Scale is really a celebration of how far we’ve progressed from the start while setting the stage for what is yet to come.


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2021 saw the release of Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night, which expands on the experiences and tribulations Asuna faced while in Aincrad. It also introduces a new character, adding even more depth to the legendary Berserk Healer.


Last but not least, this year Sword Art Online Progressive: Scherzo of a Dark Dusk graced theaters in Japan, picking up where Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night left off by chronicling the dangers of Aincrad’s political struggles. Between clashing guilds and the malicious player killers roaming the lands, the tension grows steadily higher and higher! 



Aincrad and Beyond


Sword Art Online


Loaded with likable characters and fantastical locales, Sword Art Online has a bit of everything at its disposal; so much so that it is a little tricky to truly limit it to one classification. It is a fantasy anime, for sure, with elements of shonen action and science fiction intrigue. Heck, there are times it dabbles in the slice-of-life genre with aplomb.


Perhaps it needs no distinction and can simply be enjoyed based on its own merits, of which it has many. Consider SAO to be an amalgam of people’s personalities alongside the suspect dealings of their online persona. Some have fully acclimated to the world of Aincrad, almost to the point of obsession, while others are constantly paralyzed with the fear that the next simulated sunrise could be their last.


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Just as in the real world, people fall into roles and hierarchies here, with many content to bide their time working a trade as opposed to trading blows. Then there are others less fortunate, who spiral into depression or madness.


Even beyond the psychology of online ids, SAO is a wholly accessible and engrossing anime with spirit, charm and an impressive bestiary. Its bright aesthetic of a manufactured gaming world pops off the screen, bringing the cast to life in an array of dazzling visual effects. Subsequent arcs not only change up the game world but explore deeper themes such as trauma and survivor’s guilt.


Sword Art Online


It really ingrains itself in you, and you might surprise yourself with how many episodes fly right by in a single viewing session. Plus, there’s plenty more to be found if you’ve got a real hankering, with Keiichi Sigsawa’s spinoff series Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online also available right here on Crunchyroll.


Such a wealth of content! It’s a good thing you’ve got high stamina, PROF. BOOTY. We’re expecting big things from you, and maybe someday you’ll be the one to topple Kabaya from his throne up among the clouds. Until you’re ready, be sure to study Sword Art Online thoroughly and emulate the greats who came before you like Kirito, or Asuna, or that guy who died on the first day. He was no great shakes on the battlefield, but dang, did he have pizzazz.


Good luck, player! We’ll see you on the front line.


This article written by Tony Cocking was originally published on the Funimation blog on November 25, 2021. It has been updated to include information from the Sword Art Online movies.


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