Sword Art Online is better than Steins;Gate. No, seriously!

To think I would ever say that… I apologize for the clickbait title, I actually meant that Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online (couldn’t think of a more succient title?) is better than Steins;Gate 0. And maybe to further clarify, I should say that S;G0 is worse than SAOAGGO (What an adorable acronym!) because neither are particularly good. And maybe as a final clarification, I don’t think the shows really ought to be compared given their stylistic and genre differences except that both happen to be on in the same season and I happen to be watching both at the same time. Real rigor for a first post…

So, with those caveats out of the way, I should perhaps modify my title to say “Sword Art Online Alternative Gun Gale Online is more fun to watch than Steins;Gate 0 as a week-by-week seasonal anime.” But of course, that title is too long and, to be honest, neither show is much fun to watch.

I think expectations played a large role in my attitude towards both shows. The original Steins;Gate is one of my favorite anime, with excellent visual design, a clear objective to drive the plot, and a great main character in Okabe. However, I wouldn’t exactly say that I expected S;G0 to be as good as the original.

S;G0 is neither a sequel or a prequel. Instead, it occupies an awkward space within the original series by fully exploring one of Okabe’s time travel loops. This would be fine except that the viewer already knows how Steins;Gate 0 will end because it will necessarily end the same way the original series did: the new “black suit” Okabe will send a video to the old “white lab coat” Okabe to help him(self) save Kurisu. The story structure shares a similar problem with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Just as the Rebels will get the plans by the end of the film, white coat Okabe will get the video from the future. The integrity of the original series demands it. I suppose there is room for a few twists, especially in a time travel plot with infinite universes, but a bait-and-switch in which the plans or video are not delivered seems incredibly risky. The characters might be disposable, like in Rogue One, but the macguffin is not. With the conclusion already known then, such side stories primarily exist in support of the original works and struggle to stand on their own. Though I expected similarly excellent visual design and more fun and familiar character interactions with the returning cast, I did not expect S;G0 to exceed the original.

For SAOAGGO, I expected nothing. The franchise has solidly good arcs, like Mother’s Rosario and … well, maybe just that one … but it also has over-the-top “so-bad-it’s-almost-but-not-quite-good” installments like the movie. It also has several flatly bad arcs, like the Alfheim Online nonsense. If I expected anything before watching, I hoped for some fun girls-with-guns action, sans the ridiculous Kirito wielding a purple laser sword like a LARPer lost in a paintball arena. If it turned out good, good. If it turned out bad, at least I would have a laugh. And if it turned out really bad, I could indulge in a little baffled outrage. SAOAGGO could only be bad if it was boring. And at first, it was.

Until episode 7, SAOAGGO practically had no plot and barely any characters. The lead, Karen, has a single identifiable personality trait: she is just too darn tall and wishes she could be a short little anime loli (but don’t we all… joke). She joins Gun Gale Online because she can live her fantasy of being a short person and then decides she wants to win a Battle Royale tournament because wanting to win games is just a natural thing people do, I suppose. That’s it. That’s all the character and plot justification we have to work with. The show really struggles to drag all this out into five whole episodes, resulting in long, dull exposition dump dialogues about how to play video games to pad out the run-time while the animators rush to produce another real action scene. The inclusion of a recap episode on episode 6 (Oh, I’m sorry, episode 5.5…) suggests to me that the adaptation didn’t even have enough story to fill the 12 episode series. In classic SAO style, it’s pretty but predictable schlock that mercifully manages to avoid some of the inexplicably weird story decisions in the worst arcs like Alfheim Online. SAOAGGO is often boring and always forgettable, but with a little mediocre action to break the monotony, it’s good enough for a half-hour-a-week seasonal show.

But surprisingly, S;G0 managed to bore me long before SAOAGGO! For a story with returning characters, a predetermined conclusion, and a roughly sketched plot arc inherited from the original, I had shockingly little understanding of what was even going on. Okabe is sad (he wears black BECAUSE HE IS SAD), but then Kurisu suddenly reappears as a virtual AI and Okabe finally smiles again but then Suzuha is doing… something about her mother but forget about that, now we have a new mystery with a red-haired Kurisu child look-alike so let’s ask known enemy Moeka for help (why do this?) then realize you could have asked the AI Kurisu instead but wait, Okabe is sad again because he can’t talk to the AI anymore because villian-from-a-million-miles-away white scientist guy said so but none of that matters because the red-haired girl shows up in Okabe’s apartment anyway but now she is an adult with… time traveling amnesia or some nonsense and a new mystery to solve but we’ll solve it in five minutes the next episode and have some fun New Year filler at the shrine but suddenly the lab gets raided by gunmen wearing “The Purge” masks and I presume, riding UN black helicopters and…

…can you see how S;G0 becomes so confusing it gets boring? Again, I know the conclusion and rough plot arc but I have no idea what is going on. When every episode ends on a cliffhanger with a new mystery, none of the existing subplots receive satisfactory development.

As a seasonal show, SAOAGGO at least keeps me coming back for a flash of color (mostly just pink…), some competent if uninspired action, and the awesome r-r-rip of Llen’s P90. Most weeks, the show disappoints me when it fails to actually deliver anything interesting in the plot or even action (why are they talking about the game rules again!), but hey, next week promises to bring us closer to a nice battle.

Steins;Gate 0 though? It has nothing to hook on to: the visual setting is dark and depressing and characters all seem as distracted and depressed as the setting they occupy. The plot jumps around without reason. Despite nearly every episode ending on a cliffhanger, none make me excited for the next week. The episodes just cannot establish interesting stakes to threaten. This is not simply a problem with borrowing a pre-destined conclusion from the original. The story just lacks any clear foundation or direction except “the inevitable end.” Instead of settling into a consistent arc focused on a single character or theme or mystery, each new S;G0 episode jumps to a seemingly unrelated idea. Maybe it will all build into some intricate masterpiece if binged in its completeness, but week-by-week I feel little desire to see what comes next.

So that leads me to an awkward conclusion: for the time being, Sword Art Online is better than Steins;Gate. To reiterate, neither are much good. SAOAGGO barely crawls into positive territory with cute anime girls and some cheap gunplay action. But despite adoring the original, I don’t think I could say that I enjoy S;G0. It’s too confusing, too depressing, and unfortunately set among the bland grey skies of a Tokyo winter (I just escaped an unusually bad Japanese winter and don’t need a reminder right now…). I’m not sure I want to continue Steins;Gate 0 this season. It simply doesn’t offer much to talk about, either good or bad. For all the criticism SAO receives, it can at least engage many of its critics well enough for them to finish the thing and dissect every little flaw.

So three cheers for Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online for continuing the franchise’s well honed tradition of adolescent mediocrity!

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