How SAO’s Unital Ring Arc Is Unique to the Franchise


  • Sword Art Online started as a web novel before becoming a popular anime and manga franchise, with the current storyline being the franchise’s final arc.
  • The “Unital Ring” arc is completely original and represents the first time in ten years that the author has been able to create a new SAO arc from scratch.
  • While the light novels and manga have adapted much of the original web novel’s story, there are still mysteries and surprises in the “Unital Ring” arc that even the author doesn’t know about.

Now over 20 years old, Reki Kawahara’s Sword Art Online remains one of the most popular anime and manga franchises in the world, all while being incredibly controversial as well. Many are aware that it got its start as a light novel series, but these books actually began as a web novel published online. There have been numerous spinoffs and adaptations since then, but the main storyline has always been clearly forecast for those who have read ahead with the source material.

Fans who read ahead of the Sword Art Online anime are currently stuck waiting alongside everyone else for the franchise’s final arc, titled “Unital Ring”. The first truly “new” arc in many years, it shows how much the series has changed from its somewhat humble beginnings. It’s a creative breath of fresh air for both the fans reading the books and the author writing them. Here’s how the development of Sword Art Online has changed since it began back in 2002.

Updated by Timothy Blake Donohoo on October 28, 2023: Sword Art Online remains one of the most popular anime/manga franchises in the world, especially due to its being isekai-adjacent. The current story arc in the novels continues to march on, making some question if it will truly be the end of the series. Now, other adaptations of the series have now begun adapting Sword Art Online: Unital Ring, showcasing how far the series has evolved beyond the original web novel.

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Author Reki Kawahara began writing Sword Art Online in 2001 as an entry for the 2002 Dengeki Novel Prize, but there was one crucial problem. Having gone over the maximum page limit, he refrained from entering the book, instead putting it online as a web novel. This original web series ran from 2002-2008, with Kawahara creating the Accel World franchise in the meantime. While elements and stories from the SAO web novel were used for the light novels and their adaptations, there were some changes as the story jumped through different mediums. The web novel would inform the initial “Aincrad” story arc all the way to the later “Alicization”, but Kawahara also included extra stories and plots in the light novels.

This means that the manga and anime versions of Sword Art Online have been playing catch up with the original web series. The anime has so far adapted 19 of the 27 light novel volumes, with the books currently in what seems to be the franchise’s final arc. Unfortunately for dedicated Sword Art Online fans who like to look ahead, there’s only so much that they — and even the author — know about this storyline. The “Unital Ring” arc is unlike any ever seen in the series, and it makes the storyline more mysterious than ever.

Sword Art Online’s Unital Ring Arc Is Completely Original

How to Watch Sword Art Online: Unsheathing the Franchise’s Timeline Unlike the previous arcs, Sword Art Online‘s “Unital Ring” storyline isn’t based on anything previously seen in the web series. Its plot is completely original, something Kawahara has actually celebrated as it represented the first time in ten years that he was able to create a new SAO arc from scratch. The “Unital Ring” arc began in 2018 in Japan, with 2022’s Sword Art Online Volume 27 being the sixth and latest entry. Though it’s yet to be adapted into an anime, a manga adaptation of the arc has been announced.

Though Kawahara has stated that “Unital Ring” will be the end of Sword Art Online, that could definitely change. After all, the popular “Alicization” arc was meant to be the original ending, but the franchise’s enduring popularity kept this from happening. Thus, it’s possible there could be more main arcs in the series that have no basis in the web novels. If nothing else, further spinoffs in the vein of Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online could be written that go beyond the scope of focusing on Kirito.

It will be a little while before Sword Art Online‘s “Unital Ring” arc is brought to television screens, which will most likely adapt the shorter but important “Moon Cradle” arc next. In the meantime, “Unital Ring” has Kawahara stuffing the light novels’ narrative to the gills, giving fans more story than ever after years of the author’s creative itches not truly being scratched.

Novels and Manga

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As mentioned, long before what’s likely to be the final arc of Sword Art Online‘s light novels, the series began as a web novel. Said web novel ran from 2002 to 2008, with the Sword Art Online light novel series beginning a year later in 2009. “Unital Ring” is the current and likely final arc of these light novels, with the series so far having 27 volumes. Likewise, the spinoff Sword Art Online Alternative Gun Gale Online is also still ongoing, with the franchise having also had some shorter light novel side stories that ran for a few volumes each. Sword Art Online: Progressive – itself based on the “Aincrad” arc that came before arcs like Sword Art Online: Alicization – has also become a successful light novel since 2012 and is still going.

The manga for Sword Art Online is a lot less consistent, however. Even the “Aincrad” arc had only a brief adaptation, with it and many of these manga concluding in short order. One of the most successful manga adaptations of the series is based on Sword Art Online: Progressive. Several of the SAO manga have yet to be released outside Japan, and that includes the recently launched Sword Art Online: Unital Ring manga. Recently, franchise creator Reki Kawahara has also come under fire for supposedly plagiarizing his novels, with another person claiming online to be the real mind behind Sword Art Online.


The Best Isekai Anime Streaming On Crunchyroll, Ranked The Sword Art Online anime is how most fans of the franchise (namely in the West) became familiar with the story. Currently, the series has three full seasons, with the latest being Sword Art Online: Alicization. This season finished in 2020, and while the popular anime is sure to return for Sword Art Online Season 4, there’s been no confirmation as to when this will happen. Thus, an anime adaptation of Sword Art Online: Unital Ring is likely several years away. An anime for Sword Art Online Alternative Gun Gale Online was also released in 2018, with a second season for the series finally announced.

Instead of a new full-on anime series, the Sword Art Online: Progressive light novels were adapted as a movie, Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night. This was followed in 2022 by Sword Art Online Progressive: Scherzo of Deep Night, which is so far the most recent animated form of the series.

Sword Art Online

The series takes place in the 2020s and focuses on protagonists Kazuto “Kirito” Kirigaya and Asuna Yuuki as they play through various virtual reality MMORPG 

Created by
Reki Kawahara

First Film
Sword Art Online The Movie

First TV Show
Sword Art Online

First Episode Air Date
July 8, 2012

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