Sword Art Online
A relatively recent anime that has been growing in popularity, a lot. Part of the reason for its success comes from its interesting concept and premise, where the main characters are literally living inside a MMORPG, in this case, in the virtual world of the game Sword Art Online, doing everything a game character would be expected to do.
It happens that many anime enthusiasts are also avid gamers. In Japan in particular, there's a whole culture surrounding anime, gaming and related-merchandising, so this highly stylized action anime drew a lot of attention. Of course there is more to it than the characters playing the game, there is a reason for that and a sinister plot behind the scenes.
Was Sword Art Online the first introducing this concept? No. Even if it took it to another level, this series is far from being original. So, for fans of this intriguing and entertaining anime, I compiled a small list of other anime series that may also appeal to you, since they share the same concept, or similar plot elements.
The anime series most comparable to Sword Art Online I could find, was the very similar-in-concept, Accel World, from the same year! Maybe the studios behind the scenes saw the potential of this concept! Despite lacking the larger popularity of Sword Art Online, Accel World was actually the first one being released.
Contrary to its similar, where the characters were forcibly logged into the game servers, being obliged to cope with the rules of the game in place of the real-life routines if they want to survive (KO in the game means brain death in real-life), in Accel World, the characters have the free-will to enter and leave the virtual reality whenever they want.
The story is set in 2046, and follows a short and corpulent young boy who could be considered the biggest loser of his school. He finds comfort by spending most of his time playing virtual games. One day, the most popular girl in school, introduces him to Brain Burst, the virtual reality program called Accel World, that will forever change his life and social rank!
Btooom! is another video game based anime released in 2012. One can only think if the studios were really trying to put this micro-genre out there! Btooom! falls into the survival genre, being more violent and psychological than Sword Art Online. The premise is similar, though: the main character is forced into a situation, and will have to "play" in order to survive.
The difference between Betooom! and the already mentioned titles, is that in this anime the main character, who excels at playing the game that gives the anime its name, suddenly wakes up in a mysterious island, with a set of items, weapons and a strange crystal embedded in his left hand, in many ways resembling the starting point of the video game.
The main character has no memory of how he got himself into such situation, but the plot is quickly unveiled when someone tries to kill him. Btooom! has been recreated in real life! The island was filled with other players, each one armed with a unique explosive weapon, and to win the game, the "player" needs to kill seven others, before someone gets to him first!
If we want to delve into the roots of this "trapped in a virtual reality" concept, then the anime series .hack//Sign, originating from its own video game, is the archetype of the idea of having the virtual world of a RPG game replace reality. Much like Sword Ard Online (that probably wouldn't exist without .hack), both main characters are trapped inside a MMORPG.
The anime .hack//Sign is part of a much larger saga, spamming sequels, spin-offs and so on. If you are really looking for recommendations for this type of anime, then the .hack franchising will give you plenty of new content and options to explore. Regarding the series, the premise is about a young player who wakes up inside the game, and can't log out.
In this world, the main character is suspected to be a hacker due to the circumstances in which he was found. Wandering around exploring and looking for clues, avoiding dangers and harmful players, he finds an item that summons a guardian, that promises him protection from harm. With its help, he will meet other players, that will help him in his quest.
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Hunter x Hunter: Greed Island
Greed Island is actually a 2-part OVA sequel to the larger shÅnen anime series, Hunter x Hunter, which I fully recommend for its much more detailed storyline and complex characters when looking at the many titles of the same genre. This OVA, however, is here representing the whole series, as it is very similar to Sword Art Online in concept.
Hunter x Hunter is the story about a talented young boy who embarks on multi-purpose quest: becoming a Hunter- a very high-profile individual who specializes in a certain area, travelling the world to receive jobs from important employees or acting on its own; and the quest to reunite with his finder, a hunter himself who went on to become a legend in his area.
The Greed Island OVA is the sequel to the other OVA sequel to the Hunter x Hunter TV series! This particular part of the story, has the main character and his buddy enter a rare video game, where other strong Hunters dwell, in order to find a key-character to the plot. In this world, they became characters in the game, able to loot items, gain levels, and use spells!
The idea of having a story, where the characters are stuck inside a virtual reality world, or being the actual characters of a video game, has been around for some time. However, it is one that has certainly been growing in popularity, though! As seen in the number of anime that have been airing with this concept, or a similar one.
My recommendations are based on that concept, since it is probably what you are looking for. But if you really enjoyed Sword Art Online, there are other anime out there you should pick up! While they may not be offering a virtual reality scenario in their story, there are other great elements they have that are similar to the plot, action and style of this anime.
You have the action-oriented and hilarious Angel Beats! Set in a otherworldy scenario, where the main character "wakes up" in the afterlife, and is faced with a war between a group of teen rebels and the angels! You also have Fate/Zero, teeming with breathtaking action, where seven magi and their summoned historical warriors, fight for the wish-granting Holy Grail.