The more things change, the more some things stay the same. Sword Art Online is an anime that’s had a pretty rocky history when it comes to reviews. While it’s definitely got its fans, there’s a large number of critics and viewers that don’t like the series for a multitude of reasons. These include, but are not limited to, Kirito being overpowered, the anime’s treatment of female characters, the design of these video games, the list goes on.
With time comes experience and experience can lead the way to improvement. That’s actually something SAO has been able to do as it continued on, improving on some of its weaknesses that plagued other seasons, but other things stayed exactly the same.
10. Changed: The Animation Improved
SAO has a pretty distinct visual style, but it wasn’t always perfect in the beginning. There were moments, though few and far in between, where the animation looked a little rushed & sloppy along with a couple of animation errors.
As the anime progressed though, those mistakes became fewer and fewer as the animation got better. That’s not the only thing that improved from this either, the fights became even bigger spectacles. By the time Alicization came around, the show’s battles became cleaner and tighter, with better fight choreography than ever before.
9. Stayed The Same: Characterization
For some characters in SAO, it seems like they’re only allowed to develop to a certain extent but don’t go much further than that. This issue with characterization has been a problem that’s been plaguing the anime for some time.
As the seasons passed, some characters were able to get more time for character development, but a lot of the main cast usually doesn’t. Kirito has mostly remained the same personality-wise since the end of the “Aincrad Arc” and most of the characters that were in that arc too suffer from this. Fortunately, Asuna is one of the few characters who has progressed since that first arc.
8. Changed: It Became Less Of A Harem Anime
SAO is technically not classified as a “harem anime,” though sadly it does retain a lot of similarities to that genre. Tons of girls have swarmed around Kirito, usually from being saved by him or impressed by his “skills,” who all adore him. Sadly for them, he’s only interested in Asuna.
As the story went on though, SAO became less of a harem anime by shifting the focus off of Kirito’s harem while also putting those characters in less suggestive situations.
7. Stayed The Same: New Characters Keep Getting Added To Kirito’s Harem
While some of the harem aspects of SAO were toned down over time, it didn’t stop the series from sometimes still reveling in it. Characters like Leafa or Sinon really didn’t need to be added to Kirito’s army of ladies who all want him, but at the same time, they’re written to lack any positive relationships with other male characters.
Even Alice gets roped into this trait of the show, despite it seeming like she and Eugeo could be a couple at first. Eugeo even dies, taking Alice’s memories with him just so that she can be with Kirito. Overall it makes some of the characters feel cheap, playing out tropes that SAO should be done with by this point.
6. Changed: The Digital Worlds
While being trapped in a video game isn’t exactly a new premise in anime, SAO’s Aincrad Arc takes advantage of the setting and ended up being the base from which other arcs built themselves off of. Admittedly, Kirito and company could only go into new video game worlds for so long before it started to feel stale, with each new arc and even the movie hopping from game to game.
Thankfully the anime did finally change things up in this regard for Alicization, which sees Kirito stranded and forced to adapt to a digital world inhabited by AI, rather than a videogame again. While most of the other video game worlds felt mostly the same, Underworld was the kind of location that resulted from the series’ natural evolution.
5. Stayed The Same: The Stakes
The Aincrad Arc had life and death on the line, where players would die if they lost all their HP, which gave the anime a lot of tension. As soon as it ended, that sense of tension more or less went away, where dying in other games meant that characters would respawn eventually (like an actual video game). While there was still a sense of danger, SAO has never been able to create the same level of high stakes since Aincrad.
Even Alicization suffers for this, for the first half of that season there wasn’t really a set goal in mind other than adapt to the new setting. The stakes were also pretty low since Kirito’s one of the only people trapped in Underworld and the one most at risk, but viewers know by now that he’ll eventually make it out okay anyway (because he’s Kirito).
4. Changed: Characters Other Than Kirito Get To Shine
SAO has often been criticized for giving its main protagonist, Kirito, way too much of the spotlight. He is the main character, but it does cheapen some of the other supporting characters around Kirito when they’re not given a whole lot to do other than sit on the sidelines.
The second half of season two saw the focus shift to Asuna for a small arc including her meeting a terminally ill ALO player, Yuuki. It was brief, but a nice change of pace and fortunately not the last time Asuna would get some much-needed attention, since War of Underworld would see the focus shift yet again away from Kirito and onto both Asuna and Alice.
3. Stayed The Same: Threats Of Sexual Violence As Plot Points
SAO has a pretty rocky history when it comes to the treatment of its female cast and it’s sadly a problem that’s never really left it either. There have been quite a few uncomfortable scenes where female characters are sexually assaulted. The most infamous case of this was back in season one, where Oberon forced himself onto Asuna, but more scenes like it persisted throughout the seasons.
All these scenes share one thing in common, where a male character (usually Kirito) is the one to save the victims, perpetuating a further stigma that male characters in SAO (that aren’t in Kirito’s circle) are written to be psychopaths and predators. If these scenes prove anything, it’s how sexual violence is really something this series could do without.
2. Changed: Allowing Kirito To Be Vulnerable
Most who dislike SAO attribute it to how nigh-invulnerable Kirito can be. Kirito is often guilty at magically being good at everything he tries and sometimes having an absurd level of plot armor. As the series went on, this started to slow down little by little, allowing him to be more vulnerable.
Lately, Kirito’s had to work hard for his strength like in the movie, Ordinal Scale, where Kirito had to tackle something he wasn’t instantly good at or Alicization whichmade good on not starting him off as overpowered like in other seasons, to the point where he’s actually in a vegetative state at the start of War of Underworld.
1. Stayed The Same: Kirito Is Still Overpowered
Sadly, for all the good steps to make Kirito actually work hard and learn to gain all his skills, it still hasn’t stopped the series from making him insanely broken. Despite starting out as terrible in Ordinal Scale, he very quickly masters it as he has with so many other games. Even Alicization, which kept his strengths believable at first, ended up making Kirito familiarly unbeatable yet again in the second half.
For as much as the series tries to make Kirito a less overpowered protagonist, he eventually falls back into his old habits, which means not a whole lot has actually changed about him at all.