Sword Art Online is one of the most popular anime series out there. Notice I said “popular”, and not “best”. That’s because SAO is also one of the most divisive anime series in recent memory. Some people love it, and others love to shit on it. And with the upcoming 3rd season, as well as the recent spinoff series, I thought it’d be helpful to write another anime breakdown.
You’ll find the spoiler-free release order directly below (which is almost the same as the chronological order), as well as my suggested watch order.
And if you feel like knowing more about SAO, including my personal thoughts (which DO contain major spoilers), then read on after that.
VRMMO Games: Sword Art Online (SAO), ALfheim Online (ALO), & Gun Gale Online (GGO)
ARMMO Games: Ordinal Scale
VR Devices: NerveGear, AmuSphere
AR Devices: Augma
SAO Release & Watch Order
Suggested SAO Watch Order
From the list below, in this order: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10
SAO Release Order
1) Sword Art Online: Season 1 (25 Eps, 2 Arcs) 
-Episodes 1-14 (Aincrad Arc) [July 2012-October 2012]
-Episodes 15-25 (Fairy Dance Arc) [October 2012-December 2012]
Synopsis: The first arc, Aincrad, is what made the anime famous. People stuck in a virtual world where if you die, you die in real life. The second arc, Fairy Dance, is a direct continuation of the story.
2) SAO: Sword Art Offline (9 short eps) [October 2012-June 2013]
Synopsis: NON-CANON. Don't watch these. They're short, chibi, 11-minute shorts from the SAO Japanese blu-ray releases. The characters host a spoofy news program with guests, trivia, & highlights from the episodes on that particular blu-ray release. Each short is meant to be watched after the episodes on that particular disc, according to below:
(SAO Episodes = Corresponding SAOffline Episode)
1-2 = 1; 3-5 = 2; 6-8 = 3; 9-11 = 4; 12-14 = 5; 15-16 = 6; 17-19 = 7; 20-22 = 8; 23-25 = 9
3) Sword Art Online: Extra Edition (101 minutes) [December 2013]
Synopsis: Takes place between Season 1 and Season 2. This is a combination of a pool episode, a recap, and a minor stand-alone story. Not a lot of new material, but enough to make it worth watching (probably).
4) Sword Art Online: Sword Art Offline - Extra Edition (13 mins) [April 2014]
Synopsis: NON-CANON. Just like the previous SAOffline show, except meant to be watched after SAO: Extra Edition. No need to watch it.
5) Sword Art Online II (25 Eps, 3 Arcs) 
-Episodes 1-14 (Phantom Bullet Arc) [July 2014-October 2014]
-Episode 14.5 (Recap) [October 2014]
-Episodes 15-17 (Calibur Arc) [October 2014-November 2014]
-Episodes 18-24 (Mother’s Rosario Arc) [November 2014-December 2014]
Synopsis: In the first arc, Phantom Bullet, the characters investigate a disturbing incident in another VRMMO game (GGO) where a player appears to be killing people in real life from within the game. Episode 14.5, titled “Debriefing”, its just a recap of that Phantom Bullet Arc. The second arc, Calibur, is a filler arc with little relevance. The third arc, Mother’s Rosario, is a much more emotional story about the characters' encounter with a mysterious sword fighter in ALO.
6) SAO II: SAOffline II (9 short eps) [October 2014-June 2015]
Synopsis: NON-CANON. Once again, just like the other SAOffline shorts. Don't watch this.
(SAO II Episodes = Corresponding SAOffline II Episode)
1-3 = 1; 4-6 = 2; 7-9 = 3; 10-12 = 4; 13-14.5 = 5; 15-17 = 6; 18-20 = 7; 21-22 = 8; 23-24 = 9
7) SAO Movie: Ordinal Scale (2 hours) [February 2017]
Synopsis: Takes place after Season 2. A new augmented reality device, the Augma (think Google Glass, but better), has taken the gaming world by storm. The new AR game Ordinal Scale has become more popular than VRMMOs, since it can be played while conscious. But, as the gang finds out, mixing the real and the virtual may not be as safe as it seems.
8) SAO Movie: Ordinal Scale - SAOffline (14 mins) [September 2017]
Synopsis: NON-CANON. Yeah. Again. Don't watch this.
9) SAO Alternative: Gun Gale Online (12 Eps) [April 2018-?]
Synopsis: A side-story with new characters. In real life Karen is very tall and very awkward. But in GGO she is LLENN - the tiny, fast, pink-clad player killer known as the Pink Devil. At the request of a new friend, she joins Squad Jam, a squad tournament in GGO.
[This story takes place during the Mother’s Rosario arc of SAO II, but before the events of SAO Movie: Ordinal Scale.]
10) SAO: Alicization (Unknown Episodes) [October 2018-?]
Synopsis: Direct continuation of the main SAO story. Premieres later this year. Centers around the main character and new characters. Supposedly very different.
The SAO Franchise as a Whole
Components of the Franchise
The Sword Art Online anime series is based on the light novels of the same name, by Reki Kawahara. The franchise as a whole has now grown into three separate components. Those components are:
-Light novels and manga
-Anime (adaptation of the novels)
-Gameverse (video games based on the novels up to a point, then diverging)
Each component is its own universe, with no canon crossover. So if you're only watching the anime, you don't need to follow the other two (unless you need more SAO satisfation).
Anime Connection to Accel World? (Minor Spoilers)
Accel World is another light novel series written by Reki Kawahara, which has also been adapted into an anime franchise. Many speculate that the two shows are connected, as they share a couple plot points.
First, SAO is set in 2022 and Accel World in 2046. In an Accel World scene, an old piece of technology is referenced which bears a great similarity to a product used in SAO.
Second, in a later arc of SAO, a new form of VR technology is introduced. This technology also exists in Accel World in a more advanced form, leading some to believe that the version introduced in SAO served as the foundation for the version in Accel World.
Seems like a connection, huh? Well I should also mention that they released a crossover video game called Accel World vs. Sword Art Online: Millennium Twilight. Seals the deal doesn’t it?
Not quite. As much as they share, Reki Kawahara says the two stories are NOT in the same universe. Taking this into account, the prevailing opinion is that the two shows are not related, but rather occasionally throw shout-outs to each other. It appears that Kawahara just likes including the occasional nod to his other properties.
My Thoughts on the SAO Anime (MAJOR SPOILERS)
So, personally, I really like this series. As a gamer, I feel like it touches a lot on why we game and what it means to us. And although death games are nothing new in anime, applying them to a world based on video game rules felt really fresh and intriguing when the show debuted. And although the first SAO arc was ssooo good, it had some flaws, which were then magnified by the second arc and beyond.
The primary criticism of SAO lies in its main character, Kirito. He is believed by many to be OP, a wearer of “plot armor” who always ends up saving the day with little effort. Beyond that, critics of SAO also hold that most characters lack depth, often being little more than additions to Kirito’s harem of female side characters. The stories often feel devoid of real stakes as well. Sure, they dangle them in front of you, but the day always ends up being predictably saved. Many critics blame the light novel’s original author, Reki Kawahara, and his fan service-laden male fantasy plots.
All valid criticisms but, in my opinion, the spark that caused the hate was the second arc, Fairy Dance. Watching an arc based on a fairy world with wings and magic, especially after the action-packed sword-fighting of the previous arc, left many feeling disappointed. I remember reading how many people thought the show got “lame”. People were turned off by the mood of the second arc not only because of the pace and story but also, in some cases, a too drastic change from the action shonen feel of the first arc. But an additional reason for the turn of public opinion was the way the female characters were treated in Fairy Dance. The two main plotlines of this arc were Suguha (Kirito’s cousin/sister) struggling with her feelings toward Kirito, and Asuna’s damsel in distress situation.
Even though incestuous relationships are practically a subgenre in anime, Suguha having feelings for her cousin was bridge too cringey for some. And since SAO at the time garnered a popularity that reached beyond average anime fans, this plot element likely made a bigger impact than usual.
Regarding Asuna, the plot in Fairy Dance undercut her character significantly considering she was a bad ass in the Aincrad arc. Sure, it would’ve been better if we were shown how she became Vice Commander in SAO, but her character was still pretty independent in Aincrad. However in Fairy Dance, she was merely a prize. An object that the protagonist and antagonist fought over. It was damsel in distress on steroids. The climax of that arc appears to have been aimed squarely at male power fantasies (people often refer to it as “that scene”).
The show did a slightly better job moving forward, but the damage was done. It now had a reputation for being a “trash” show. Season 2’s Phantom Bullet arc was actually interesting and fresh. It was then followed by Mother’s Rosario, which introduced a nuanced story and heavy emotion previously unseen in the franchise. Even so, SAO remained a ridiculed show. The movie, Ordinal Scale, was fucking beautiful and enjoyable enough as well. But once again, the criticism was baked in.
As a result, SAO is a show on the fence. Enjoyable but seriously flawed. The shortcomings are just enough to make open-minded people doubt their satisfaction. And even when it is objectively good, the haters don’t give it a chance.
And now people are trying to say SAO Alternative: GGO (the spin-off) is better than the main show. Many critics are calling it superior. It is good, but in my opinion, it has some pretty boring moments. It can be real slow until the last few episodes, and would have also benefited from the first few episodes being presented chronologically rather than the time-jumping narrative they chose. And while on this topic, I should also point out that the source material for the spin-off is written by a different author than the main show. So that might be another reason why people are so eager to say it’s better than the mainline series. Therefore, part of the acclaim for SAO Alternative: GGO may be due to it not being SAO proper, rather than its own merits (in my opinion).
Personally, I’m on the side that likes SAO. I think there is a selective outrage over it. However, I must admit, the story is weak in some areas. I don’t have a defense for that. But I feel like there’s enough to make it enjoyable and worth the watch.
Overall, it’s a fun show. Good? I don’t know about that. But it’s definitely fun, action-packed, and interesting. I would recommend it.