Five days prior (6 November 2022) marked the start date of the events of the inaugural Sword Art Online (hereafter SAO) anime. It was on that Sunday when, in the series premiere, 10,000 users would be trapped in the video game world of Aincrad, and forced, under threat of death, to remain there until a saviour could liberate them. I was reminded of this throughout when spotting the tweets of a Twitter account dedicated to summarizing the series events according to real-life timestamps, and are set to traverse that for the next two years. I thought I’d commemorate this occasion by looking at SAO here. However, finding a Western movie that can be reasonably compared to this was, admittedly, something I had difficulty with. Moreover, I found myself comparing this series to a multitude of flicks: Die Hard for its hostage rescue scenario, Tron for its technological gimmicks, and for some reason, even a VR version of The Neverending Story.
But somehow I just didn’t feel right with those: until, lo and behold, I found Ready Player One (hereafter RPO), from 2018. With its emphasis on virtual reality gaming and a heroic plot against an evil overlord looming between the two series, it was here that I finally found something that I could comfortably relate the former against – and I’m glad to see on forums that I’m not alone in sharing this sentiment.
Eastern Competitor #23: Sword Art Online
Japan, being the center of video game industry playmakers like Nintendo, SEGA, and Capcom among many others, has long been a major influence in the market, and it’s safe to say that their home country is no exception to the rule. Virtual reality was also another thing that was explored in the mid-90s, but to limited capability, and would remain such until almost 20 years later: until then, bringing it into reality would just be left to the imagination. This is what Reki Kawahara explores when he, in 2001, released a light novel series, Sword Art Online, which explores the adventures of Kazuto Kirigaya (screen name Kirito) and Asuna Yuuki as they navigate their way through the world of Aincrad, and attempt to complete all 100 boss floors of its eponymous castle – a fate placed on them when the game’s creator forcibly removed them from outside access until such was accomplished.
The series proved to be successful on the market, selling 30 million light novel copies, some of which were among the top selling works, and spawned multiple sequel series focusing on other side stories and missions: including my favourite, the heavily Catholic Mother’s Rosario arc. The anime, released in July 2012 by A-1 Pictures of Black Butler, Fairy Tail, Anohana and Your Lie In April fame, would go on to carry a reputation as one of the most controversial shows for its reputation among fans, who either loved it for its creativity and music, or loathed it for its insurmountable plot, character, logic, or worldbuilding problems. Needless to say, its legacy is one that cannot be sharply dismissed.
Western Competitor #23: Ready Player One
Enter Ernest Cline, an American technologist whose only work, prior to publishing Ready Player One, was the screenplay of Fanboys, a film centered around a gang of Star Wars geeks. Set in a futuristic Columbus, Ohio amidst an impoverished community, the story focuses on Wade Watts (screen name Parzival) and his online adventures in a virtual reality system known as OASIS, described as a world where anything is possible – skiing on the pyramids, playing ice polo, and visit interplanetary casinos. He finds himself, along with players Art3mis, Aech, Daito and Shoto (known IRL as Samantha, Helen, Toshiro and Aikihide respectively) on a quest to find three keys to unlock a hidden Easter Egg feature within the game, left behind by its deceased founder, the eccentric James Halliday, and acquire his share of 500 billion dollars. This quest leads them in a hot pursuit race against time with Nolan Sorrento, the CEO of IOI, who aims to acquire OASIS and monetize it to the max; basically what EA does to all its games, or so I’ve been told.
Published on 16 August 2011, it wound up being a New York Times bestseller, and was praised by outlets ranging from Entertainment Weekly to Huffington Post. A film adaptation would be released in 2018 by Warner Bros., directed by Steven Spielberg, and carried on the former’s legacy of depicting an expansive video game world and throwing in lots of 80’s rock and popular culture references, which was also critically acclaimed and showered with accolades and nominations from the Saturn Awards to the Academy Awards, mostly for visual effects. The same could not be said for its sequel novel, Ready Player Two, coming 9 years after, which of all things has been compared to… what else, other than SAO. Now you see why I’m writing this!
The connection between SAO (the first 14 episodes being the subject of analysis) and RPO can’t be stated enough. Apart from taking place mostly in an open VR world, it features a grand quest with real-life consequences, hack-tier deus ex machinas, the protagonist meeting with the game’s creator, and the obvious romance between an isolated and a ginger-haired gamer. And to top it all off, it was confirmed both the writers of these series have actually met each other, discussed the grandeur of virtual reality, and that both series came to real prominence around the same time! I’m not one to believe in coincidences, for God, in His Providence, ordains everything for a specific reason, but it’s just too perfect to pass up as the connection between these two.
Category #1: The Hero
It wasn’t too hard to see likenesses in SAO‘s Kirito and RPO‘s Parzival. They have a gauged control over their emotions and an analytical knack, able to find cryptic clues to win big. A lone wolf personality also shows up between them: Kirito having a strict no-guild policy following a traumatic incident in episode 4, while Parzival adamantly declares various times “I don’t clan”. Both also have an altruistic philosophy to a degree: for Kirito, it stems from a genuine sense of empathy and concern for their well-being, for which he’ll risk his life so as not to see others suffer needlessly while Parzival wants to prevent IOI from destroying the game and other players’ real lives. Where they differ is in the category of skill, reputation and knowledgeability. Parzival is not as strong as some of his peers Daito or Aech, but has a great reputation among game players which he uses to his advantage to raise an army against IOI in the closing moments; his interest in anything James Halliday or 80s related is not to be challenged. This is in contrast to Kirito, Aincrad’s black sheep owing to his former role as a beta tester, which is barely shadowed by his identity as the game’s #1 player.
Putting these together, I will have to say that I found Parzival as the better, more steadily-developed character. How he can be seen working hard towards his goal, becoming more complete as he trawls through the OASIS, and ends up more confident and street-smart by the end was satisfying. The inclusion of his and Wade’s selves’ interaction allowed for an added dimension of conflict that broadened the story’s impetus and heightened a sense of relatability between the boundaries of fantasy and reality, while SAO kept things mostly in one place. Kirito’s, for the most part, is just a generic good guy who’s effortlessly good with any girl he sights his eyes on, has unexplainable powers to hack into computer systems (why he didn’t use it to insta-clear the game is beyond me), survives a death blow, and most importantly, faces no significant transformation or meaningful development as Parzival.
Ready Player One 1-0 Sword Art Online
Category #2: The Heroine
Accompanying our lead heroes are a female companion who, as it reins obvious, also serves as their main love interest. For Kirito, it’s Asuna, while Parzival meets Art3mis, a popular professional gamer who is known as Samantha Cook. The two are similar insofar as they both are ginger-haired, highly popular with players, very capable and successfully establish contact with their boyfriends after the quest ends. Art3mis possesses a very extroverted, one-track personality, and is very vocal with her opinions. She strong-arms her way into a partnership with the keep-to-himself Parzival and shows a goal-oriented thinking, putting the quest before love. Asuna is more diverse in her characterization: she at first starts shy and reserved, covering her head with a cloak, before gaining a tough, snarky disposition as vice-commander of her guild that dissolves after she hooks up. Her romance with Kirito blossoms into something she cherishes, and will die to protect even if it means never leaving the gaming world forever.
If Parzival one-upped Kirito in terms of likability, then I must say that I found Asuna more engaging than Art3mis. What ruined the latter for me was that she feels too sidekick-y and bland, having no personality outside of the strong, independent woman archetype: which quickly gets inverted to a prize for Parzival to acclaim. And yes, I know that Asuna goes through the same phase in that abominable Alfheim arc, but that hardly changes how from episodes 1-14, she is molded into a capable fighter, a good friend, and as evidenced by her declaration of “I’d rather die than live without you” to Kirito in episode 13, how dedicated she is to protecting those she loves. All these are present every scene she is in: everything that Art3mis, and even Samantha, fail to display.
Sword Art Online 1-1 Ready Player One
Category #3: The Miscellaneous Characters
RPO and SAO have a sizable roster of secondary characters for the heroes to buddy up with. You have Aech being a helpful hand to Parzival as Klein or Agil to Kirito, with Lizbeth and Silica being the in-the-background followers as Daito and Shoto served. They’re mainly there for the occasional support and are quite disproportionately represented, though SAO would rectify that issue in later seasons. And there’s no shortage of villains in both flicks either taking different planes of evil: Nolan and his cronies at IOI wish to acquire OASIS and betray its founder’s nonprofit principles, and aren’t shy of committing deception and murder, while Kirito and Asuna come across various villains from all walks of life: unscrupulous thieves in Rosalina’s gang, corrupt military personel, and the perfidious Laughing Coffin clan of murderers, of which Kuradeel in episode 10 is one of.
As to their presence in the story, it’s a no-brainer that RPO makes better use of them, being more present and supportive of Parzival’s journey while those of Klein, Agil, Silica or Lizbeth just showed up for convenience of plot. Even though SAO improves this in later season and has the side characters balance Kirito’s load out more in later series, I never truly felt a strong connection there as with Parzival and Aech’s brotherly love and dynamic: can you imagine Klein and Kirito standing up for each other as strongly as Aech did with Parzival, concerned that he might be falling into a trap with Art3mis’ charm? To close things off, Nolan and IOI were far more menacing, and more real as villains than all of Laughing Coffin combined.
Ready Player One 2-1 Sword Art Online
Category #4: The Game Creators
Virtual reality plays an inescape role in both works: Aincrad, the brainchild of Kayaba Akihiko, amidst its stunning cities, lush meadows, icy frontiers and many monsters lies a dark twist behind its creation, transforming into a death trap largely due to his unhealthy desire for godhood, symbolized by the fortress flying above Aincrad; as soon as Kirito conquers it, he loses interest in the game, and shuts it down. His brooding is contrasted by James Halliday’s vision of OASIS, which he built initially out of his enthusiasm and love for video games, and making others happy; moreover, we see his life be a constant struggle against his own depression of not finding romance, and bitter battle against those like Nolan or his best friend Ogden who wanted to financially standardize it. His world is a true paradise: where anything is possible, the rules are lax, and the sky’s the limit.
Both characters have their own in-game avatars: Kayaba’s being Heathcliff, the founder of the Knights of the Blood guild that Asuna and Kirito are a part of, while James’ is Anorak, a hooded, wise-old-man type of figure. They, like the protagonists, have depressing backstories, and were given a mysterious aura to them, as seen through the video clips of James’ interactions and the bits of his life, and Kayaba’s absence until the end. Yet, they were able to make something out of their passions for technology, become highly revered by their respective protagonists, and develop an implicit acquaintanceship with them: both, as a matter of fact, have a scene where the two parties have a heart-to-heart conversation with one another about their legacy. While Kayaba and Kirito’s are limited to a mere, unclear footnote about why he did what he did, Parzival and James’ was a monologue on the latter’s regrets for not having lived his life, and how to make OASIS better for others – which is taken to heart at the series’ end, as OASIS is given two days off for users to figuratively, touch grass, while Aincrad is destroyed forever.
I couldn’t find myself vibing with Kayaba at all: sure, he was cold, calculating, and makes for a passable de jure villain, but his motivations were not the best expounded as much as James Halliday. Kayaba’s conclusion felt lazy, while James’ was hopeful, deep, and took me back in a positive way, on top of being excellently supported throughout the story.
Ready Player One 3-1 Sword Art Online
Category #5: The Romance
Kirito and Asuna meet each other by random encounter in episode 2, shortly before the first boss raid and under strenuous circumstances of being left partnerless. They start off as similar persons, choosing to fight alone and keeping to themselves, but wind up being a good fighting duet, as they prove their prowess well in taking down the boss and moving forward. Their next appearance would come several episodes later, under very different circumstances: Kirito being an accomplished, high-level superstar player and Asuna the vice-commander of a prestigious knight guild. Despite a cold start, they eventually come to understand each other, and accompany each other on various battles across dungeons, sharing their problems heartfully, solving murder mysteries, and enjoying life in Aincrad: through their conversations, they complement each other.
Parzival and Art3mis’ dual introduction comes when they crash onto each other during a race, saving the latter from an on-track accident. At Aech’s workshop, Parzival begins to develop a crush on her which intensifies during a trip to an in-game library to search through James Halliday’s memories. It turns out the two are much like one another: same IRL background from broken homes, very well-versed in pop culture lore, and are on equal skill level. They finally get a chance to meet each other in person, as Wade and Samantha respectively, and fall in love with each other from there. When Samantha is captured by IOI agents during a raid on their base, Wade undergoes a dangerous mission with the other members of his crew to rescue her, and this they do successfully; once they solve Halliday’s puzzle, they use the money to better the gameplay and lives of their users, and officially begin a romance.
On the surface level, RPO‘s romance seems believable enough with two characters that are much alike with each other: something many agree helps make a bond: the setup is promising. Kirito and Asuna, on the other hand, initially join up for convenience’s sake. Their chemistry though: not so stellar. Look – you can have characters that have the same likes in material, tastes in food and special talents for all I care: but I’m not sold on it when the two are just placed there and gravitate towards each other like magnets. A good romance requires crafting and focus so not only do we anticipate the characters and their love, but have their relationship seem real, shippable, and something we can take after.
Kirito and Asuna’s love passes all the requirements for this. What they lack in shared interests they make up with moments to share, such as dinners and cook nights at the latter’s house or raising Yui together. Am I saying it’s perfect? Far from it – some things could be better expounded if the series was paced better. But even with these limitations, it still doesn’t feel forced like RPO‘s second half which basically shoves the romance in our face with a damsel-in-distress scenario that sees Wade and the gang save Samantha from IOI’s headquarters: despite having earlier rebuffed him for not being considerate of her feelings, after this, she just kisses him unhesitatingly, and even before that, acts okay around him when they first meet face-to-face; it’s just clunky. On the contrary, SAO develops its main bond organically in their discussions and transformation from isolated, solo fighters to a lively tag team that can conquer any hurdle and embrace the joys of life together.
Sword Art Online 2-3 Ready Player One
Category #6: The Action
RPO has several scenes of action of various kinds – sporting, strategy, and combat. We see this reflected in the beginning’s New York City racetrack, which Parzival and friends beat by deciphering a clue hidden within James’ memories, the mansion inspired by The Shining, and the final battle between the players and Nolan’s army, the Sixers. They rely on heavy use of artillery-based weapons, such as bazookas or drones, and on occasion characters can invoke armour gadgets that allow them to transform into popular culture motifs, such as Master Chief from Halo, Godzilla, or the Strike Freedom unit from Gundam. True to reality, characters who die in-game do not die in real life; rather, they get a short rest interval before they can jump back into the game. SAO‘s is mostly reliant on medieval-style combat (something which would change in later renditions) against other minor villains, such as Kuradeel or his friends in the Laughing Coffin cult, if not the floor bosses such as Gleam Eyes or the Skull Reaper. On occasion we do get to see characters use unique skills such as the Dual-Wielding Combo that Kirito is known for, but all that aside, I was very impressed with how well the action matched the game’s high-stakes factor, but could it have hurt them to not make Kirito so blatantly overpowered and give others a chance at the spotlight?
Despite this, SAO offered more that was appealing in the action category. Unfortunately in RPO, while the avatar-changing ability was a nice touch, it wasn’t used often and felt gimmicky as opposed to an important gameplay element. I didn’t like how droned-out, slushy and unfocused the intense parts were, and the confrontation between Parzival and Nolan, which was supposed to be the climactic fight in this movie was one short cop-out compared to Kirito and Heathcliff’s. Ditto for the IOI raids against Wade and Samantha’s resistance, which proved short and emotionless.
Sword Art Online 3-3 Ready Player One
Category #7: The Adventure
It’s hard not to ignore the inherent problems with SAO‘s adventure. It glosses over important details, especially with elucidating how Kirito becomes so overpowered and doesn’t compensate for a lack of floors being explored and potential character development being squandered. Had they left Alfheim to be its own 20-something episode follow-up, God knows how much more content could be squeezed into the Aincrad segment. RPO, however, I have to say, has a much more fun quest with its treasure-hunting premise, explored amidst its collection of 80s relics in music, art and leisure. It doesn’t excuse itself with cheap subplots and as a result is very easy to follow, on top of a nice touch of “live your life to the fullest” at the end. It was the latter which made me exclaim “What a great movie!” – until the end credits played Hall & Oates’ You Make My Dreams, more boringly known as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ goal song.
Ah, if only the characters lived up to the adventure’s grandeur. Also… you’d think that an adventure with a prize this huge would be a big deal for everyone, but only Parzival and friends seem to take it seriously. Where are their other rivals? Why is everyone too upsy-daisy with him after getting the first key? How come you don’t see other clans form in game dedicated to that cause other than IOI, which would have made things more complicated, but multi-leveled? I just can’t buy that would make sense, in contrast to the camaraderie, treachery, desperation, tranquility and solidarity between Aincrad’s inhabitants in the wake of their crisis. Even if the storytelling is crap, I could find positive distraction in not only the game’s layout, but the characters and how they’re impacted by their struggles and successes, some of which their journey with Kirito gives; and vice versa with his case, on top of them being more emotive as opposed to just being useful pieces of plot-specific support. They gave the story some life and fun to it, and that I can appreciate moreso than the mere concept alone.
All in all, what good is a treasure hunt if there’s nothing the characters offer that make me go “Oh yeah, I remember when X did Y” or “I loved when X turned out as Y because of his experiences”? Ultimately, the wider presence of this element in SAO is what makes me put it as the better option, in spite of its problems.
Final Score: Sword Art Online 4-3 Ready Player One
I’ve never understood the relentless hate that SAO gets from others. Sure, the first season was not the best. But guess what? The later seasons get better, believe me. The storylines get more compact, the characters more stable and unified, and the adventure style become more diversified. It’s just like software: the first version will always have improvements, and the patches serve that purpose – hence the later version, hopefully, stands stronger than before. Don’t get me wrong, I still found RPO satisfying, and it rightfully deserves its status as America’s SAO equivalent. Were they to put more stock in relatable characters instead of shuffling them from point A to B to C – after all, the film diverged in multiple places from the book – it could have been a contender and generated the hype for virtual reality inspired movies just as happened for SAO and the rise of isekai anime.
3 thoughts on “East Meets West #23: Sword Art Online .vs. Ready Player One”
Two different stories with very similar storylines. Both present the pros and cons of virtual reality. It’s honestly surprising how similar these stories are. Sword Art Online is a more thought-provoking allegory of life, whereas Ready Player One seems to be more of a for-fun adventure story. I like both, but I think I like Sword Art Online a little bit better.
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Glad we both think alike! 😁 Thank you for pointing out that about SAO, I definitely appreciated that aspect of it especially in the second season.
Honestly I was very happy relieved to find out about this movie and how much like this it was! Otherwise I would have compared it with “The Neverending Story” or “Tron”, and in the case of the latter, SAO wins by a longshot!
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