Guilty Crown and Sword Art Online are two anime that cater to the same demographic (male teens) and feature roughly equal amounts of action and flirting. Both have a young male protagonist who is thrust into battle and becomes the most powerful character. They also both have a strong female character that later ends up in the role of damsel-in-distress. The animation quality and popularity of each series’ musical artists have similar levels of popularity. Why then is Sword Art Online generally better reviewed than Guilty Crown? (Note: spoilers below.)
One could argue that people just like anime about virtual realities more than ones about special powers, but I think it has to do more with the plot, execution, and character development. Unless you read about the series beforehand, Guilty Crown’s plot is filled with surprises that literally come out of nowhere. Take for example, when Shu’s school was about to be turned into a dictatorship. Tsugumi basically said something along the lines of “hey, look what I have” and out came a device that can read everyone’s levels that she had just found on the ground. Such a device had never been used during the series before and there were no hints to its existence, yet it drastically changed the direction that the series was going. On the other hand, Sword Art Online took the time to lay down the rules of its world with plenty of monologues and a few revealing discussions. It may have made for a boring introduction, but it paid off later by not bringing in seemingly random twists in the plot.
Somewhat related to the plot is how some of the action scenes are executed. One of the more unbelievable moments in Guilty Crown was when Gai took down a giant robot with a few shots from his pistol. How was that even possible? The series treated it as if it were normal to be able to do that while RPGs and machine gun fire had little effect. Even more unbelievable is how every time Shu ends up in a bind, he is able to extract a weapon from someone that is exactly what he needs without first knowing what would come out. Sword Art Online took a completely different approach to having its protagonists win against overwhelming odds. During the boss fight where Asuna tried to save the army squadron, Kirito jumps in and reveals his dual-wielding technique. Yes, it was a surprise, but there was at least some hints to it like Kirito getting a second sword and mentioning something he wanted to keep secret. His battle with the Salamanders that were chasing him and Leafa when they were heading to the World Tree also seemed tipped in the enemy’s favour, but Leafa had previously talked about how Kirito’s specialty is illusion magic, which was what he used to win. This more structured approach to battles didn’t leave me scratching my head wondering what happened after every scene.
One other area where I think Sword Art Online did better than Guilty Crown was with character development. For the longest time, Shu was a scared boy that lacked any conviction. He magically turned into a cool hero that comes to save the day in a matter of minutes near the end of the series. At the start of Sword Art Online, Kirito was closed-off and didn’t open up to anyone. Over time (though some might say the wait was too long), he started to open up to Asuna and they eventually became a couple. I think the peak of Kirito’s character development was when he cried in front of Suguha. Here was a guy that had steeled himself for everything and never shed a tear, but he had grown to love Asuna so much he broke down in tears at the thought of losing her. While Kirito’s growth was in the opposite direction of most protagonists in these types of anime, at least it was gradual rather than sudden.
These are just my thoughts on Guilty Crown and Sword Art Online. Both have some good aspects, but I just focused on the ones that stood out to me that I think gave Sword Art Online the edge. Some people may agree with me, some may not; maybe you like Guilty Crown more than Sword Art Online. Feel free to add your own thoughts about either series below.