The isekai genre exploded in popularity following the release of Sword Art Online, which catapulted this light novel adaptation into mainstream anime fandom. Almost immediately, Sword Art Online became at once one of the most widely watched and widely criticized anime on the market. Isekai, which translates loosely into “different world,” is a subgenre of entertainment where characters are transported into a different reality, much like the portal fantasy subgenre seen in works like Narnia. While anime like Fushigi Yugi and The Twelve Kingdoms are proto-isekai series, what Sword Art Online brought to the table was an emphasis on video game mechanics.
It didn’t take long for many other anime to copy this style. Works like KonoSuba and Re:Zero were hailed for satisfying both fans and critics of Sword Art Online and the isekai genre. However, the Korean manhwa called Solo Leveling might be coming to push Sword Art Online down another thread. Since its inception in 2018 and appearance on Webtoon, Solo Leveling has ranked as the most popular manhwa on sites like MyAnimeList. Solo Leveling does Sword Art Online better than Sword Art Online.
One area where Sword Art Online actually surpasses Solo Leveling, at least early on, is in the clarity of world-building. Where Sword Art Online takes place in a literal video game with clearly defined rules from the start, the world of Solo Leveling is a little less clear. Main character Sung Jin-Woo has access to a mysterious Program, which seems to indicate that the game — or at least the fantasy world of hunters — functions on RPG logic. This isn’t so uncommon in isekai such as KonoSuba, where the world is material but the laws are governed by video game logic.
Where Solo Leveling is clearly superior to Sword Art Online is in its full-color artwork. Every page bursts with vibrancy and life. The character designs are diversely realized, with some incredible action scenes front and center. For many, the main draw is the fantasy action and how it’s illustrated. However, there’s something else that makes readers addicted to reading this manhwa. Artwork can only carry this series so far.
While both series are mixed bags, one key difference that gives Solo Leveling an edge over Sword Art Online is how it presents its power fantasy. In brief, Sword Art Online features a power fantasy of being a top-tier player, while Solo Leveling features a power fantasy of becoming a top-tier hero.
Teenage RPG enthusiast Kirito in Sword Art Online spends the first arc outperforming most of his peers due to his time beta-testing the game. Because he has extra experience and special in-game skills, he starts the game with an edge over his peers. Kirito’s superior skills make less sense when he enters ALFheim Online, a game with entirely different gaming mechanics that other players have been playing for far longer, yet he immediately becomes the best player seemingly within hours.
While later arcs minimize Kirito being the unstoppable god-tier player he is in earlier arcs, Kirito’s absurd ability to master every game he picks up makes it increasingly hard to feel tension watching him fight. There’s seldom any real risk that Kirito will fail or even struggle succeeding, which makes audiences increasingly less interested in seeing him strive for the top.
In contrast, Solo Leveling‘s 20-year-old protagonist Sung is just an ordinary guy. In this fantasy world, he’s actually the lowest of the low, being a E-Rank hunter, otherwise known as the World’s Weakest. From this low point, he progresses upward, becoming stronger with each fight. There’s something more relatable about an adult who is still at the bottom struggling to rise. Coming-of-age stories often focus on the murky territory between adulthood and childhood, but this indicates people stop growing at adulthood. This simply isn’t true.
This upward progression keeps readers interested to see where Sung progresses next. It’s a similar tactic employed by shonen manga, where readers want to see characters grow and become even more powerful with each subsequent arc. This is why Sword Art Online burned out. If you start out as a God-tier player, you’ll only stagnate going forward. You can not advance.
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Sword Art Online helped breathe new life into the isekai genre, but Webtoon's most popular isekai series might succeed where it failed.