The other 2012 series I’ve been watching as it aired other than Chuunibyou has been Sword Art Online – and in exactly the same way, I loved the first half and had mixed feelings about the rest. While the serious turn in Chuunibyou had me feeling it would have been better truncated or held off but worked, however, the far inferior second half of SAO made me quite fed up with the whole thing. Far better to have spun the first of the two plot arcs into the full 26 episodes than to have rushed to include both, and then end up with a series that was deeply disappointing.
SAO was by far the most hyped series of the year, and also the one I was most looking forward to. Unlike most series these days (sequels aside), I actually knew about this one months before it aired, and even recommended it to a lot of friends. I loved the pretty character designs – despite the main characters famously having just about the same features despite being different genders – and the fantasy/sci-fi elements, and really felt engaged by Kirito.
In the near future, gaming technology has developed to the extent that ‘nerve gear’ can completely immerse you in a fantasy world. The interface, placed on your head, makes you believe you are really in the world of the game, engaging all your senses and even your pain receptors, while allowing you to feel you are performing supernatural feats. 14-year-old Kirigaya Kazuto joins the game on day one having enjoyed the experience of being a beta tester. However, before a few hours have elapsed, he finds himself unable to log out. Soon the truth is revealed – the creator of the nerve gear has trapped all the players within the virtual world. He rips away their avatars to reveal their true faces – perhaps the funniest moment in the series, though of course most of the major characters are incredibly good-looking anyway – and tells them that they must beat the game to escape it. Oh, and if they die, there will be no respawning – they will die in real life, too.
The initial criticism of the series was that this had all been done before. .Hack/Sign in particular was cited: it, too, has a virtual MMORPG fantasy-themed world where a player cannot log out. I was also reminded of HunterXHunter’s Greed Island arc, in which the players of an MMORPG can die for real, the Taiwanese Manhua ½ Prince which also explores online fantasy-themed MMOs and the contrasts between real life and avatar characters, and Master of Epic, a gag comedy series about a similar world that in particular I think directly informed the appearance of the character Recon. But that never bothered me. This was clearly not telling the same story as any of those, and the idea was never meant to be all that unique. It was the particular characters and the world itself that hooked me. And so I happily watched.
Kirito initially has a tough time. He is ostracised for the unfair advantage of having played before, and he abandons others in order to play alone. He makes friends, but suffers the real tragedies of the risks of a genuinely deadly game. His emotional state became the target of mockery for many, who loved pairing him up with
song clips/lyrics, but I still enjoyed this part. There was a hint of annoyance
as the series briefly became episodic and started featuring a new girl every
week, who rather annoyingly all fell instantly in love with pretty
little Kirito, who used his overpowered avatar to save the day again and again
in what may as well have been made-up magical spells. Basically, I could
understand people starting to feel the same annoyance towards him as they feel
towards Bella Swan in Twilight, who is similarly overly-perfect and has
absolutely everyone fall in love with her. The ‘Gary Stu’ term becomes more and
more appropriate, and rather than a horrible situation of life and death, of loss
and broken dreams, it becomes clear SAO is wish fulfilment and Kirito is
overly perfect. Linkin Park
For a while, he’s put in his place a little by the even more overpowered Heathcliff, though later we find out just why that is, and starts a proper romance with Asuna, which is actually very cute, a little boundary pushing (to say nothing of the light novel writer’s pornographic ‘glop’ chapter written later) and rather humanises the character, but just as it gets interesting, the writer seems to think there isn’t much more to explain, skips to the ending, finishes the story in a very unlikely and unsatisfying way, and suddenly a whole new plot arc begins. And a 25-episode series has jumped the shark at episode 15.
The second half is deeply inferior. Without giving too much away, to rescue Asuna, Kirito enters a world of elf ears and fairy wings in what seems despite its flight simulation a terrible game. The aim is apparently for all races to work together, yet none of them do. Of course, perfect perfect Kirito changes all that, and enters the game levelled absurdly high because a lot transferred to his character. A horribly shallow incest story gets thrown in, and the antagonist is a cackling madman rapist looking to take over the world through the nerve gear, and it all goes far too far and becomes incredibly stupid. The resolution is even more unsatisfying than the first arc’s ending and by the end I’d completely gone off Kirito.
So much was done right. The series looks gorgeous, with A-1 now ensconced as one of the studios that can produce very pretty character designs, after The iDOLM@STER and Welcome to the Space Show, and I hope this hit will buoy them to more action series. I’d even watch another series of this. But I have to say, for what I expected to be one of the best series in years, it certainly fell well short. A pity!