Sword Art Online Episodes 1-14: The Aincrad Arc

I have been an anime fan for over two decades, but in all of that time. I have never, ever seen a show as divisive as Sword Art Online.

A show that came out during my wilderness years away from anime. SAO was never something that I paid any attention to. I had no real strong feelings one way or other, mostly because I had had my moment with shows like Dragon Ball and Naruto. SAO seemed like it was meant for the next generation (much like My Hero Academia is now), and that was great.

However when I returned to the anime fandom full force in 2017, I soon got wind of Sword Art Online, and became aware of not just the fandom, but the anti fandom. Frankly I have always been astonished by the sheer amount of black hatred this show gets. It made me curious, but I always had other shows to watch, so SAO always became something that I would get to “eventually.”

Now with the recent real life happenings, I’ve found myself with plenty of free time, so I am taking this chance to catch up that back log. This will be the first of several posts where I give my thoughts on every single arc of the series and, as an outsider looking in. See just what the fuck is up with the anime that is called. “The best show of all time” or “The worst thing ever made.”

Join me after the cut as I dive into the first arc of the series Sword Art Online: The Aincrad Arc!

((Make sure to follow my twitter where I give daily updates on this show!))

Aincrad Arc | Sword Art Online Abridged Wiki | Fandom
Let’s do this

14 episodes into Sword Art Online, my overall thoughts are pretty much: “That’s it?”

THIS is what people hate? THIS is what people have spent so much time shitting on. THIS is what people have devoted 45 minute YouTube video essays cynically nitpicking about? Who have molded their entire online personality and identity around. THIS?

I am glad that I have decided to watch SAO later in my life, because being so removed from the initial hype and backlash has allowed me, at least I think, to view the series with an objective mind. I have no skin in this game, and even after watching this first arc, I still don’t, and I am glad about that. Because viewed objectively, Sword Art Online‘s first arc is actually pretty good. It’s solid, enjoyable and yeah..just good!

If you’ve been around the anime world this last decade, you know the plot of his story. Sword Art Online is a massive new virtual MMO that our hero Kirito eagerly jumps into play on launch day. However not all is well in virtual paradise as he and the rest of the players soon discover that they cannot log out. Furthermore things are complicated when they discover if you die in the game, you die for real. What follows in this first arc is Kirito and the others trying to free themselves for the game, the relationships that are forged and the love and loss they experience. I couldn’t help when I watched to get massive .HACK vibes from the show, and I think that is intentional. Newer anime fans may not know this, but .HACK was a series that is probably the grandfather of every MMO anime ever made, and has seem to been almost forgotten in this modern era. I had a few brushes with it back in my youth, and while I found it to be slow and rather boring, I couldn’t help but feel this first arc of SAO was following those footsteps. However unlike it’s predecessor, SAO is notably more fast paced.

1st Floor (Aincrad) | Sword Art Online Wiki | Fandom
I was amazed at just how beautiful and well animated this show was. Everything from the scenery to the fighting is exceptional.

That I think is both a boon and bust for the series. Throughout my entire time, I never once felt bored or un-entertained, nor did I feel that the story was rushing through anything important. Yet at the same time, I couldn’t help but wish SAO had spent more time on certain plot points, or had an episode or two to expand certain scenes. This is most notable with the Sachi episode, where Kirito joins his first guild and becomes close with a female player. As her and the guild subsequent fate propel him on his lone wolf mentality, I really wish that it had been given more time than a single episode. Yet even in that lone episode, I left feeling satisfied with what had happened.

Sword Art Online Episode 09 | Sword Art Online Wiki | Fandom
Kirito is good at the game, but he’s not at those alleged “gary-stu op” levels I keep hearing about.

In terms of characters, there has been a lot (and i mean A LOT) said on the two main leads, Kirito and Asuna, and I’ll leave it to better writers to give you the rundown. What I will say though that so far, I have yet to see this level of “gary-stu” that Kirito has been so criticized for. If anything, the male lead is a blank slate, still trying to discover who he is as a person and what he stands for. (So pretty much any teenager his age) Kirito has a lone wolf mentality, but it seems to stem from living in the world of games, and much of the Aincrad Arc is giving Kirito a new lease on life, which of course is done through Asuna. Out of all the characters, Asuna is probably the strongest of the bunch. While very much a lesser version of Fate’s Rin Tohsaka (no complaints here), it is Asuna who really steals the show. Her relationship with Kirito and the bonds they share is when the Aincrad arc is at its absolute best. The one thing I do remember from my initial watch of this arc years ago (I stopped around episode 10ish?) was that I really loved that Kirito and Asuna avoided the bullshit “will they, won’t they’ nonsense and just got together.

Sword Art Online Quotes — Kirito and Asuna's First Kiss Sword Art ...
Getting Kirito and Asuna together early frees up the show to go in new directions. A smart move.

Asuna is clearly a sheltered girl who views SAO as a place to be free, and her relationship with Kirito, developed through the first 2/3rds of the arc is well done. Much (and I mean MUCH) has been said about Asuna’s character, especially her role as the female lead, but I think it works. Never once did I think Asuna was just “the love interest” and the choices she makes and the desires she has are wholly her own. I think it is important to remember that both these characters are young teenagers, trapped in a world they may not leave. A first love like theirs is a powerful thing, but it is believable. This relationship will absolutely get a character dive in the future, so look forward to that.

Fishing trip | Sword art online asuna, Arte de espada, Yui sword ...
Asuna and Kirito help each other discover new things about themselves. It’s no Rin and Shirou, but it’s not too far off.

The rest of the cast however is a bit of a mixed bag. Klein and Agil are solid supporting characters, and it was great to see Klein, the newbie in the first episode grow to handle himself by the end. The female supporting cast however is very much take it or leave it. Sachi again serves the plot well, with some tug at your heartstrings moments. Silica, Yui and Lisbeth however feel very much like filler at some-points. (Well not Yui, but I’m waiting to the next arc.) The villain of the series Heathcliff also feels very under-cooked, and I really wish the reasons for what he trapped everyone in SAO, being directly responsible for the deaths of thousands had been actually explained. (Though I don’t care enough to make a 45 minute video essay on it)

The Aincrad Arc of Sword Art Online was a fun, harmless and enjoyable experience, great when it wanted to be, and solid everywhere else. It’s damn well animated, the story is brisk and well told, and never once did I feel like I was being given anything “bad.” As of now, I am struggling both to see the black hatred that people spew at this show, as well as the “greatness” it was suppose to be. I honestly don’t care either way, because I’m having fun with SAO. I’m even tempted to pick up Sword Art Online Progressive, the light novel series that expands on much of the story in this arc. And if my biggest complaint of the Aincrad Arc is that I want more of it? Well then i think Sword Art Online is doing something right.

Sword Art Online #13 & #14: Sword Art Offline | [the jinxed ...
I love this shot.

21 thoughts on “Sword Art Online Episodes 1-14: The Aincrad Arc

  1. I remember playing the .HACK games on the PS2, good times. Tried the anime but as you say it’s very slow, and I believe it’s actually a mystery anime which is kind of odd because when you think of MMO you think of action, but I guess back then things were different. The games were great though, packed with action and the story.

    I imagine the manga (I believe it was a manga?) is probably really good too, although it could be slow too, as I imagine it’s also a mystery story more than anything else.

    Liked by 2 people

    • .HACK is from another era, and honestly I think the entire franchise is dead. It probably would have done alright in this time. I never played the games, but you never hear ANYONE talk about it anymore

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yeah. I think if anything the most memorable part of the anime left is the OP, which was a damn good song.

        The games did a better job with telling a story imo, although they did their own thing separate from the source material. And because they were games, they actually included a lot of action as well. Would probably do OK now as you say, if they just changed the angle from “slow burner mystery” to something more active.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. From my experience, most people I’ve talked to enjoy or at least tolerate the first arc of SAO. I enjoyed it myself on my first watch.

    But I think most of the SAO hate came from the later arcs. IMO the second arc ruined Asuna’s character by turning her from a badass swordfighter to a helpless damsel. And the later seasons try to go for a darker story by introducing a lot of real world issues, like rape and mental illness, that weren’t handled well at all and added nothing of value to the story.

    I stopped watching SAO partway through S3 because I felt like it was just going on with no clear direction. But if nothing else, I do still have fond memories of the first 14 episodes. 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What I noticed was that yes, SAO’s first arc was, despite it being horribly paced, it was pretty solid. We had a good intro to the world, the characters, and the premise was cut and clear. The story was absolutely memorable as well, and very straightforward.

    I feel like it would have been a lot better if instead of reserving eps15 and beyond to the Alfheim Arc, they should have expanded on the Aincrad storyline instead.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As has been pointed out, most of the actual complaints come from post first arc. It’ll be interesting to see your thoughts as you move forward. I think Part 2 of Season 1 is a little weaker but I still enjoyed it. Though, you know I like the entire show 😉

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I wonder. Do you think that the majority of ani-tubers and ani-bloggers who hate on the show do so just for ratings? Do you think they really hate it, or hate it for the publicity? Because I really don’t understand the ferocity of the response, either.

    That third episode with Sachi changed how I look at Christmas. Well, that’s a bit hyperbolic. But I can’t hear that song without remembering that episode, and it felt devastating. You’re right, both in that it had a huge impact on Kirito and drawing it out just a bit more might have been more effective. It was, after all, a cornerstone for a lot of his future development.

    I’ll be interested in seeing your reaction to the next arc. I agree at least partly with Mari in that the next arc didn’t do Asuna any favors. In fact, after I first watched it, I was furious. But looking back, and taking into account what I just saw in Underworld where Asuna descending from the sky commanded the ground to swallow her enemies, I’ve mellowed that reaction. And in any event, I adored Suguha.

    Another thing I liked about the SAO world is how they took their own history seriously. How the movie handled memories of Aincrad drove a lot of the drama. Again in Underworld, seeing Shino/Sinon use her bow to wipe out an entire army, when in Gun Gale Online she was a sniper felt very, very right.

    Anyway, thanks for such an honest review. Those are the most fun to read!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve already posted my daily thoughts of the first four episodes on my twitter, but so far. I’m enjoying ALO a lot. I see where people have their ‘issues’ with it, but they so far have made the stakes higher and more personal.

      I know the reason why SAO is hated, or I think I have a pretty good reason. I’ll get to that in my review of the second arc,

      Liked by 1 person

  6. So I actually did watch .HACK, and it was pretty bad. The main problem was that it really comes down to the director, Koichi Mashimo, and the studio Bee Train. They really liked long pans of people staring into the sunset while the same Yuki Kajira song played in the background.

    Just for some more context, he was also responsible for Noir and Madlax, which are shows I liked more but wasn’t really in love with.

    As far as SAO goes. The first part is fine. It’s not offensive, but I can’t really remember anything about it. I checked out when the incest subplot kicked in. That was a little too wierd for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. If you like the first arc and you wanted it to go much longer, then you’ll find the SAO Progressive light novels lots of fun, I’m finding them much more fun than the mainline novels. I don’t think the author quite understands that Kirito and Asuna together are way better than Kirito by himself.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “As her and the guild subsequent fate propel him on his lone wolf mentality, I really wish that it had been given more time than a single episode.”

    This episode actually comes from a side story published much later, and kinda shoe-horned into the anime at the appropriate point. That being said, I’m glad they did. This is where everything changes for Kirito (anime wise)… Not just into being a lone-wolf, but it lights a fire under him and he shifts from “out for myself” to “fighting for others” mode. He finally gets that there are other people – and they’re suffering.

    Liked by 1 person

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