All spoilers regarding the Aincrad, Fairy Dance, Phantom Bullet and Mother's Rosario arcs are unmarked. Examples pertaining to the Alicization, Moon Cradle, and Unital Ring arcs can be spoiler tagged if deemed necessary.
Imagine that gaming has advanced to the point where you no longer watch from the other side of the television screen but are right there in the world, experiencing full immersion of all your senses and controlling your character as easily as your own body.
The first game to fully make use of the capabilities of this technology is Sword Art Online, a fantasy MMORPG created by Akihiko Kayaba, the inventor of the very device used to play it. However, a sinister trap awaits the first ten-thousand players who log into the system: they discover that they cannot log out, effectively trapping them within the game.
Kayaba issues an ultimatum: beat the Final Boss on the 100th floor, and everyone will be allowed to log out. If, however, a player's HP should ever be reduced to zero, then the headset used to play the game will unleash a pulse of microwave radiation to fry their brain, killing them in the real world. The same fate awaits them if anyone in the real world attempts to remove them from the game by force.
A swordsman player named Kirito is one of the fated ten-thousand. He holds the advantage of having beta-tested the game before becoming trapped, giving him prior knowledge of the game layout and its combat systems, but he struggles to make attachments and prefers being a solo player. Now, he and every other player in Sword Art Online must fight to survive in a virtual world that has become all too real to them, facing not only the various monsters and traps lurking inside the game, but also the player killers that are the worst that Sword Art Online has to offer.
As of 2023, there are eight main arcs, with a number of sidestories:
- Aincrad Arc: The original story, set in the world of Sword Art Online. (Main story in LN Volume 1, fleshed out in Volume 2, side stories in part of Volume 8).
- Progressive: An ongoing Interquel within the Aincrad arc, started in late 2012. The story is about Kirito and Asuna facing the challenges of the first few floors of Aincrad together as a team. It expands and modifies some of the events of the original novel while expanding the world and characters. The first chapter of the first volume, Aria in the Starless Night, which describes Kirito and Asuna's first meeting, was included in the anime even before the volume was published.
- Fairy Dance Arc: Two months after the "SAO Incident," three hundred players have yet to awaken from their comatose states, including Asuna. When Kirito is sent a blurry screenshot of one of the players that looks "suspiciously like Asuna" in another MMO called "ALfheim Online," he dives into the game to free her from the virtual world once and for all. (LN Volumes 34)
- Phantom Bullet Arc: Set in a game called Gun Gale Online, an MMO that focuses on guns and shooting instead of swordplay and magic, a mysterious assassin called "Death Gun" seems to be murdering players by killing their virtual avatars, and Kirito is called upon to enter the game and solve the mystery. (LN Volumes 56)
- Calibur Arc: Set shortly after the Phantom Bullet arc, Kirito gathers many of his friends from the various games he has played in order to take on one of the most challenging quests in the reborn ALO: recovering the game's Infinity +1 Sword, Excaliber [sic]. (LN Volume 8).
- Mother's Rosario Arc: Set after the Phantom Bullet and Caliber arc, this one has the particularity that the main character is actually Asuna, instead of Kirito. While playing ALO, Asuna encounters a mysterious swordswoman named Yuuki, whose combat skill is said to surpass even Kirito's. She is recruited to help Yuuki and her guild, the "Sleeping Knights," achieve the feat of soloing one of Aincrad's fearsome floor bosses, an achievement that would immortalize their names on the Monument of Swordsmen. (LN Volume 7).
- Alicization Arc: Kirito awakens in an unfamiliar virtual world (called "Underworld") with no memories of how he got there. He must venture to discover the secrets behind this world and why he has been trapped within it, all while questioning whether he is the real Kirito or merely an Artificial Intelligence in his likeness. Alicization is by far the longest story arc in the franchise, and the only one with subtitles for each volume.note (LN Volumes 918)
- Moon Cradle: Set immediately after the great war in Underworld, the Human Empire and Dark Territory have made a peace treaty and opened up for trading and transportation. However, an unknown enemy force attempts to start another war, and it's up to Kirito, who became the de facto leader of the Human Empire Unity Council, and Ronye, who just got promoted to an Integrity Knight Apprentice, to stop them. (LN Volumes 1920).
- Unital Ring Arc: The latest arc, and the first story arc not to be based off content from the Web Novel. Taking place after the events of Alicization, all VRMMOs built by The Seed are suddenly and forcibly united into one Survival Sandbox game called "Unital Ring" and thus, Kirito and his friends are suddenly involved with the titular game soon after. (LN Volumes 21, 23??).note
- Material Editions: A series of doujins which continue to be published by "Fumio Kunori" (the author's pseudonym for the Web Novel). Some tales have a very loose relationship with canon, while others would be later revised or incorporated into the main story.
- Sword Art Online Alternative: A collection of Spin-Off novels written by other authors.
- Sword Art Online: Alternative Gun Gale Online: Written by Keiichi Sigsawa. Set in GGO after the events of the Phantom Bullet arc, centred on a player named LLENN who competes in a new team-based battle royale tournament.
- Sword Art Online Alternative: Clovers' Regret: Written by Watase Souichirou. Set in a Jidaigeki-flavoured VRMMO called Asuka Empire, which appears briefly in the main story and Sister's Prayer.
- Sword Art Online Alternative: Gourmet Seekers: Written by Y.A. Set in 2024, the final year of the Aincrad death game arc, this story follows two players, Yuzu and Hina, as they work to master the Cooking skill and open a diner.
- Sword Art Online Alternative: Gambler's Honour: Written by Sudou Ren. Retired gambler Keiji Tomoe receives a request to enter the world of VRMMOs for the first time and compete in New Aincrad's Grand Casino Event in hopes of winning the top prize, the legendary axe known as the "Titan's Nail." However, Keiji soon finds himself embroiled in a much bigger scheme that threatens to engulf the entire VRMMO world.
- Sword Art Online Alternative: Mystery Labyrinth: Written by Konno Tenryuu. In Alfheim Online, a detective named Spica and her assistant discover a diary that was written during the Sword Art Online death game incident detailing a series of murders committed in a labyrinth. Her interest piqued, Spica and her assistant set off for the ALO recreation of SAO's 20th floor to find the "Labyrinth Manor" and uncover the truth of this dark mystery.
- The Day Before: Set shortly after Kirito's proposal to Asuna. (Limited edition bonus content for the anime DVDs)
- Sugary Days: Set during Kirito and Asuna's honeymoon, compiled from a number of short stories published in various sources. (Limited edition bonus content for season 2 of the anime DVDs)
- Extra Edition: A special episode of the anime set after the Fairy Dance arc, including a Clip Show and an original story about an underwater dungeon. Has a prose sequel titled Rainbow Bridge included with the DVD/BD release.
- The Day After: Asuna starts experiencing strange visions while playing ALO. (Limited edition bonus content for the anime)
- Objectors! VRMMO Development Tragedy: A one-shot about a small 3D modelling business with no relation to the main cast.
- Caliber SS: A What If? story where the events of the Caliber arc end in failure, with unexpected results.
- Sister's Prayer: A Prequel to Mother's Rosario from Yuuki's perspective, set in a hospital around the start of the SAO incident. (Limited edition bonus content for season 2 of the anime DVDs)
- chromatic colors: The cast help an artist named Ceba. (abec Art Works)
- Celeste Fairy: In the real world, Kirito and Suguha track down the owner of a strange bicycle.
- Ordinal Scale: A movie revolving around a new Augmented Reality device called the Augma, set between Mother's Rosario and Alicization. Receives occasional nods in later material (such as the Augma showing up in the anime adaptation of the Alicization arc), but doesn't have much impact on the main story.
- Versus: A Crossover with Accel World set around the start of the Alicization arc. After users of Rath's newest FullDive machine report seeing "ghosts", Kirito is brought in to test it. He finds his avatar somehow transported 20 years into the future, to face off against a robotic figure named Silver Crow. (Accel World LN Volume 10)
- Dream Game -Crossover-: An Intercontinuity Crossover with The Irregular at Magic High School, in which Tatsuya and Miyuki are somehow transported to the world of Alfheim Online. Part of that series's Dream Game sidestory, and has a sequel in the form of Versus II.
- Kiss and Fly: Volume 22 of the main light novel publications is a collection of 4 sidestories: The Day Before, The Day After, Sisters' Prayer, and Rainbow Bridge (which is a sequel to the anime-original story from the Extra Edition recap OVA).
The first novel was written between 2001 and 2002 by Reki Kawahara with the intention of competing for the ASCII Media Works' Dengeki Game Novel Prize. However, he surpassed the page limit for the contest, so he instead published it as a web novel under the pseudonym Fumio Kunori. Over time, he added three further volumes and several short stories. Eventually, the light novel got browsing numbers exceeding 6.5 million page views recorded at the personal website. However, it wasn't until after Kawahara won the prize in 2008 with Accel World that Sword Art Online got published and spawned several adaptations:
- The anime adaptation, which brought the franchise to mainstream audiences world wide:
- It started on July 7, 2012, for the Summer 2012 lineup. People from many countries may watch it legally on Crunchyroll. It is also now on Netflix (as of 2020). At New York Comic Con, Aniplex USA announced home video release for the series and announced an English dub. The dub premiered on U.S. television on Toonami on July 27, 2013 and premiered in Australia on ABC3 on June 7, 2014. The first season covers the Aincrad and Fairy Dance arcs, which are Volumes 14 as well as some parts of Volume 8 (which are side-stories from Aincrad).
- In August 2013, Aniplex announced an OVA, titled Sword Art Online EXTRA EDITION. It premiered in Japan on New Year's Eve 2013,note and the next day in several countries via Crunchyroll and Daisuki. At the very end of the OVA, the second season of the anime, titled Sword Art Online II, was announced.
- The second season premiered on July 5, 2014, and covers the Phantom Bullet, Caliber, and Mother's Rosario arcs, which are Volumes 5, 6, 7, and 8 (the remaining parts not covered in Season 1) of the light novels. The season can be seen internationally through Crunchyroll and Daisuki. One of the most requested shows for Toonami, it premiered on the block on March 28, 2015.
- An original film, Sword Art Online The Movie: Ordinal Scale, serving as an interquel between the Mother's Rosario and Alicization arcs, was released in Japan on February 18, 2017.
- The third season, Alicization, was announced to be underway on October 1, 2017, at the Dengeki Bunko Autumn Festival. It began airing in October 2018 for a 4-cour schedule, with its third cour, Alicization: War of Underworld airing from October to December 2019. The fourth and final cour aired from July to September 2020.
- At the conclusion of Alicization's finale, an anime movie series adaptation of Sword Art Online: Progressive was announced:
- The first movie, Aria of a Starless Night, covers the events of the 1st floor of Aincrad but with the story narrated primarily from Asuna's point of view. A new original character, Mito, is added, as well as scenes not present in previous works, making it a new continuity. It was released in Japanese theaters on October 30, 2021.
- After the end credits of Aria, the film announced a second movie, Scherzo of Deep Night, indicating it will cover the events of the 4th novel of the Progressive series. It was originally planned for release in Japanese theaters on September 10, 2022, but was announced to be postponed on August 22, 2022 until further notice. The new release date was then revealed on September 6, 2022 to be October 22, 2022.
- On November 6, 2022, to coincide with the story's in-universe date of SAO's launch, a new anime-original movie was announced to be in production. No plot details are available yet.
- Video games telling an Alternate Continuity from the original story of the light novels/anime. Now with its own page.
- Mobile games
- Sword Art Online: Code Register, a role playing tap-and-play battle system.
- Sword Art Online: Memory Defrag, an action RPG mobile game that mix and matches the main anime story with the previous SAO games, along with original story content exclusive to the mobile game.
- Sword Art Online: Integral Factor, an MMORPG mobile game that takes place in the original Aincrad arc, but uses a custom-made player character.
- Sword Art Online: Alicization Blading/Rising Steel, a turn-based action RPG mobile game primarily focused on the Alicization storyline.
- Sword Art Online: Unleash Blading, the second season of the above mobile game. The title was changed because the game had gone beyond the events of the Alicization storyline.
- Sword Art Online: Black Swordsman, an open world MMORPG mobile game.
- Sword Art Online: Variant Showdown, an action mobile game taking place in the game Cross Edge and was released for the anime's tenth anniversary.
- Web Voice drama found here.
- Various manga series, all written by Kawahara himself, but illustrated by different artists depending on the storyline. So far,note the arcs are as follows:
- Aincrad (Complete: Serialized from August 2010 to April 2012, published in 2 volumes as of September 2012note )
- Fairy Dance (Complete: Serialized from April 2012 to April 2014, published in 3 volumes as of June 2014)
- Phantom Bullet (Complete: Serialized from April 2014 to December 2021note , published in 4 volumes as of February 2022)
- Caliber (Complete: Serialized from July 2014 to June 2015, published in 1 volume in August 2015)
- Mother's Rosario (Complete: Serialized from June 2014 to December 2015, published in 3 volumes as of June 2016)
- Ordinal Scale (Complete: Published in 5 volumes from April 2017 to April 2020)
- Project Alicization (Cancelled: Serialized from August 2016 to June 2021, published in 5 volumes as of August 2021)
- Sword Art Online Progressive: A re-adaptation of the original Aincrad storyline that goes into much greater detail, with the peculiarity that the narrative is from Asuna's perspective. (Cancelled: Serialized from June 2013 to April 2022, published in 14 volumes as of August 2022)
- Sword Art Online — Girls Ops: A spin-off manga focusing on the adventures of Silica, Lisbeth, and Leafa and a new character Lux. (Complete: Serialized from June 2013 to January 2021, published in 8 volumes as of May 2021)
- Sword Art Online Alternative — Gun Gale Online: A manga adaptation of the spin-off light novel series. (Cancelled: Serialized from October 2015 to January 2021note , published in 4 volumes as of March 2021)
- Hollow Realization: A manga adaptation of the video game. (Complete: Serialized from October 2016 to September 2019, published in 6 volumes as of October 2019)
- Alicization Lycoris: A manga adaptation of the video game. (Cancelled: Serialized from December 2019 to May 2021, published in 3 volumes as of July 2021)
- Kiss and Fly: A manga adaptation of the 4 sidestories that comprise Volume 22. (Complete: Serialized from September 2019 to April 2023, published in 3 volumes as of July 2023)
- Re: Aincrad (Reboot): A manga re-adaptation of the franchise's first arc published in Dengeki Daioh magazine, which will also include story arcs that were not covered in the anime. (In progress: Serialization began October 2021)
- Unital Ring (In progress: Serialization began March 2023)
- Sword Art Online Board Game: Sword of Fellows: A cooperative dice-based battle game.
- A live-action American TV series was announced in August 2016 by American independent production company Skydance Television, to be developed by a co-writer of Terminator Genisys. Skydance also announced that it was planning a Sword Art Online' virtual reality experience after the television series. In mid-February 2018, it was reported that Skydance was no longer involved and the rights to the adaptation had been sold to Netflix. There has been no further news on this project since then.
The light novels have been licensed in the U.S. by Yen Press for release beginning in April 2014.
Asuna and Kirito were chosen to represent Sword Art Online in the crossover Fighting Game Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax by Sega, with Suguha Kirigaya (Leafa) as one of the support characters; later, Yuuki Konno from Mother's Rosario was introduced as a playable character in the Ignition Updated Re-release, with Karen Kohiruimaki (LLENN) as a support character; with three playables and two support, SAO became the series with the most representation in that game.
Note that this is a long-running series, so beware of potential unmarked spoilers.
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