Being the huge, sprawling franchise that it is, Sword Art Online has a bunch of spinoffs and side materials. Most of them aren’t worth getting into unless you’re a hardcore fan. But there are some gems that I recommend people try out even if they’re not big into SAO. They offer unique stories with their own appeal and delve more deeply into SAO’s virtual worlds than even the original series does.
Here are my favourites:
Sword Art Online: Progressive
Written by Reki Kawahara
Sword Art Online: Progressive is a reboot of the Aincrad storyline, which tells the story of how each and every floor of the game was conquered. For those of you who were unsatisfied with the jerky pacing of the original story, Progressive is a must-read. I’ll copy and paste an excerpt from a review of the series that I wrote on English Light Novels:
Sword Art Online: Progressive appears to have been written with an eye for addressing the common criticisms against SAO. Kirito reprises his role as the main character for this series, but he’s not the godlike gamer he was in the original series; instead, he just seems like a perceptive kid who often needs help from others to balance his overspecialized talents. The other characters in the world of SAO get a chance to shine in Progressive—most notably Asuna, whose journey from newbie to VRMMO veteran is one of the main focuses of the reboot.
Worldbuilding was always the strongest aspect of Kawahara’s stories, but it’s even more impressive in this series. One of the things I liked most about Progressive was its emphasis on the social dynamics in the VRMMORPG setting. The lives of other players were often touched upon in the original series but were never really delved into. In Progressive, we’re given a clearer picture of the guild politics, and the various side characters play key roles in moving the narrative forward. This makes the game world feel as if it’s populated by people instead of just serving as a canvas for Kirito’s exploits.
Just be warned that this series is not getting a conclusion anytime soon. So far the series has been averaging about one volume a year, so at this rate Kawahara may be writing Progressive for the rest of his life. But when the installments are this good, I don’t mind waiting for the long haul.
The other thing I want to note is that Progressive has a bit of retconning. Kirito and Asuna are friends from the start in Progressive instead of distant acquaintances. That’s a good change, because they are really cute in Progressive. It really makes clear that the two of them are best friends even before they are lovers.
Because Progressive is chronologically the first part of Sword Art Online, it can be read before the main series. But there’s also no problem with reading it later. Progressive allude to concepts from Alicization. In the world of Aincrad, Kirito encounters several AI characters who are too human-like to act from pre-programmed scripts. The mystery of the AIs and what Kayaba was doing with them makes the overall plot interesting even though we all know how the Aincrad storyline ends.
Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online
Written by Keiichi Sigsawa
Keiichi Sigsawa’s Gun Gale Online spinoff series got an anime adaptation last year, so you may be aware of it already. But for those of you who haven’t heard of it yet, it’s a novel series with original characters set in the world of Gun Gale Online, which was featured in the Phantom Bullet arc from the Sword Art Online II anime. It can be enjoyed without any knowledge of Sword Art Online, and has a completely different appeal from the original.
The easiest way I can think to sum up SAO Alternative is that it’s told like a sports story. The narrative focuses on competition rather than life-or-death stakes. The game itself may not be able to kill its players, but the intensity of the gun fights still makes the heart pound! Throw in some clever twists and strategising, and SAO Alternative has some of the best fight scenes in the entire franchise.
It helps that Sigsawa is one of the biggest gun nuts in the light novel business. He supervised the gun matters in the Sword Art Online II anime. He’s able to do justice to the setting of GGO in a way that Kawahara, who professes to be not too familiar with guns, was never able to do. It’s satisfying to watch characters pull off wins by picking the best gun to use in a particular context, or through countering the opponent’s moves by knowing their weapon’s weakness.
Although the series is enjoyable for anyone who likes a combination of cute girls and guns, SAO fans will also appreciate the different perspective Sigsawa offers on VRMMORPG players and their relationship in the real world. In SAO Alternative, none of the main characters are SAO survivors. Thus, they’re more representative of the ordinary players who play VR games for the simple fun of it. (Well, except for Pitohui, but she’s an odd duck.) It’s refreshing to see a different side of the games that are removed from all the villains and conspiracies Kirito has to deal with.
But mostly, you want to read or watch SAO Alternative because of how funny it is. I’ve never cracked up so hard at anything SAO-related in my life.
Sword Art Online: Girls’ Ops
Manga by Neko Nekobyou
One of the biggest crimes of SAO is that the side female characters never got much to do after their brief time in the spotlight. After furiously demanding for MORE DEBAN for years, Silica, Lisbeth and Lyfa finally have a manga spinoff to themselves where they can be the heroes of the story.
…Or not. The most surprising thing about Girls’ Op is that the story is really more about an original character named Lux, who is an SAO survivor with a lot of emotional baggage to deal with. Lux’s story drives the narrative forward, and the other girls are mainly there to support her. Ironically, Silica, Lisbeth and Lyfa get outshone even in their own spinoff.
I can’t complain, however, because Lux’s story is very compelling. Girls’ Ops is really about making amends, both with yourself and the people you may have hurt in the past. Lux bounces off the other girls well because they’re connected to SAO too and can understand her plight all too well. It also makes sense why she would connect with Silica, Lisbeth and Lyfa over Kirito, Asuna or Sinon – because levels and combat strength are beside the point in this manga. The girls support Lux by being there for her emotionally and giving her space when she needs it, not by solving Lux’s problems for her. The friendships that develop between them feel seamless and natural because of this.
Girls’ Ops also makes great use of the ALfheim Online setting. For Kirito and his friends, it’s the game they always keep coming back to because it’s like comfort food. And after reading this manga, I can see why they pick this game above all the others. It features an abundance of systems and customisation, plus the individual quests have a creative setup. Wisely, however, Girls’ Ops never puts too much emphasis on any single quest or game mechanic, and instead focuses on the character interactions and how much fun they’re having. This sold me on ALO as a game way better than the Fairy Dance or Excalibur arcs ever did.
Girls’ Ops is kind of an underrated manga because most fans either haven’t heard of it or assumed it was just an ecchi thing with no plot because of the vague premise. But not only does Girls’ Ops have a plot, it also complements the themes of the original novels really well. It won’t add much new information, but it does reinforce the idea that everyone in Aincrad had their role to play. Read Girls’ Ops if you want to see more of what Sword Art Online is like without Kirito’s presence.
All of the above series are licensed in English by Yen Press. They’re available both digitally and in paperback, so they’re not hard to obtain.
Which SAO spinoffs do you like? Bear in mind that I haven’t played any of the video games, so if any of you readers have played them, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on them.