Sword Art Online watch order — all episodes & movies 2023

Credit: A-1 Pictures

Before isekai… there was SAO.

Just kidding. But during the time Sword Art Online landed in the animation scene with A-1 Pictures’ adaptation, it did make a much bigger splash than anyone ever imagined. Up until that point in time, the VR game format was only ever gained minor mainstream-level success, and therefore a watch order wasn’t exactly necessary even for something like the .Hack series.

But, perhaps it is a sign of times, or the result of technology finally being far more relatable to our modern world than ever before. Regardless, a Sword Art Online watch order would eventually include several seasons, a few spin-offs, and at least two movies.

Feeling overwhelmed yet? Don’t worry, as complex as the types of media is in the list, it actually is so much more straightforward chronologically. Complexity would still be more than your average Danganronpa watch order, Naruto watch order, or Monogatari watch order but of course significantly less convoluted plot-wise than the Fate watch order.

Credit: 3Hz

There is technically just one main series, and so the chronological watch order will be more or less the same as the order that they were released. There is at least one spin-off anime that touches upon one of the alternative “seeded” Realized Worlds, but if you are only after the adventures of Kirito and gang, you can effectively skip that one out entirely.

By chronological order

This is how you want to watch SAO if you want a slightly more complete perspective of its fictional world(s).

  • Sword Art Online (2012)
  • Sword Art Online: Extra Edition (technically skippable)
  • Sword Art Online II (2014)
  • Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online (2018 spin-off)
  • Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale (2017)
  • Sword Art Online: Alicization (2018)
  • Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of the Underworld (2019, 2020)
  • Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night (2021)*
  • Sword Art Online Progressive: Scherzo of a Dark Dusk (2022)**

(* – no home media yet, ** – coming soon)

By release order

Not many tricks for this one, you simply need to move Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online after Ordinal Scale. All additional background information and lore still apply. Needless to say, this list will not include the yet to premiere Scherzo of a Dark Dusk.

  • Sword Art Online (2012)
  • Sword Art Online: Extra Edition (2013)
  • Sword Art Online II (2014)
  • Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale (2017)
  • Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online (2018 spin-off)
  • Sword Art Online: Alicization (2018)
  • Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of the Underworld (2019, 2020)
  • Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night (2021)

Sword Art Online plot

NerveGear, the latest in VR technology is combined with yet another tech, the Cardinal System with Realized Worlds, making the genre of VRMMORPG a reality in SAO’s fictional Earth. Spearheading the research of this technology was Akihiko Kayaba, who suddenly announced a death game to all players of the then newly released VRMMORPG Sword Art Online.

Basically, play the game as normal. But if you die in the virtual world of Aincrad, the NerveGear will fry your brain to kill you in the real world as well. Kirito and Asuna, a handful of their friends, and the rest of the frontliners then race against time to clear the game as fast as possible, before their bodies on the real world completely succumb to atrophy and wither away.

Eventually, other versions of the Cardinal System, “The Seed”, will spawn new VRMMORPGs, or even entire newly generated contained realities, that are thankfully much safer to play (except for the simulated reality one). Our protagonists don’t have to rest on their laurels, however. New obstacles consistently arrive along with these realms to challenge their wits, question the nature of reality, and add more waifus to Kirito’s consistently growing harem.

Sword Art Online – the standard series that deals with all of the Realized Worlds that Kirito manages to venture into. First is Aincrad, then into Alfheim Online, and Gun Gale Online. The stakes are not as high as Akihiko’s first enclosed world, but these alternative adventures can at least get engaging in many different ways. You can consult light novel guides for episodic sections if you must, but just watching them all through should be perfectly fine.

Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online – PUBG, the anime. ‘Nuff said.

Sword Art Online Ordinal Scale – Instead of VR, this movie instead focuses on showcasing what an alternative AR (augmented reality) system could be for a similar game concept. The exact chronological timing (and probably its canonicity as well) of its combined events can get just a smidge bit confusing, but it should fall somewhere before Alicization.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – combining the technologies of both the Soul Translator and Cardinal System, top-secret company Rath was able to generate a complete realm of (still virtual) reality that is only known by the name “Underworld”. While still technically artificial (by human means), the Underworld no longer adheres to the common computer interfaces, behaving and acting as an entire world on its own. Kirito wakes up in this world initially with no memories, as if he had been living in this world for his entire life…

Sword Art Online Progressive – an “in-between” movie series, supposedly telling the untold parts of the early days of Asuna and Kirito in the locked world of Aincrad. Due to the significant number of new lore details, background information, and characters, you can effectively consider this a reboot of the first SAO arc. As of this article’s publishing, the only way to watch these in its full HD glory is to physically go to a theater in Japan (the second part isn’t even released yet).

As with many light novel series, there will of course be a few details that would be altered, or even missed completely, even with something as comprehensive as Sword Art Online. Heck, even officially published material themselves also missed a lot of “good information” that was previously present in the much earlier web novel drafts.

Nonetheless, the experience should still be more or less complete. After all, it did manage to somehow enter our best romance anime list, even if it is not essentially romance or even isekai anime by stricter standards. A slight tingle of science fiction, plus a hefty dose of MMORPG fantasy in many ways than one, as we always used to say.

Besides, watching anime and reading light novels is just one thing for SAO. At this point in time, it is already another thing entirely to “fulldive” into its weird and wacky games…