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Yeah it is definitely somewhat ironic that SAO kicked off this current isekai boom but isn't really an isekai. Even by what I consider most important, all the other people are new to this world so it doesn't really count. I guess actually the alicization arc is what I'd consider isekai, but nothing up to that point.
I'm very sad about the popularity of what I'd consider the 3 main trapped in an MMO anime. .hack//sign, SAO, and log horizon. I always view it as, hack//sign is what MMOs are actually like (people trolling and bored and escaping from s*** lives while afking in town at max level), log horizon (what people think MMOs are like, but which would require infinite content to exist), and SAO (what people wish MMOs were like, including me in a lot of areas). This is excluding the trapped in the game element and just looking at the games themselves.
I really liked the way .hack//sign portrayed its characters, getting the various online persona's eventually matched to brief black and white glimpses of their real life. To me that's a lot of what it actually feels like being at end game in an MMO. You know these people so well in game but you just get little bits and pieces of information about who they are in life. I especially liked BT in it.I thought the scene when she logs back in after saying she quit the game for good and it shows the high school reunion letter torn up in the garbage was masterful. A clear motivation of why she wanted to run away back into a game that's been boring to her for months and offers no value outside of escapism and social interaction without the baggage of her real life.
And yet no one cares about .hack//sign. Meanwhile flashy and adequate SAO gets all the attention and log horizon gets the praise for being "what it'd really be like" despite both having flat unrealistic characters and having basically nothing to do with MMOs aside from background setting.
.hack is something I've wanted to get into, but just keep putting off. Think it's the amount of spinoffs, maybe I'll just try to see what are the main parts and watch those and watch any of the extras if I end up liking it.
.hack isn't very centralized. You have different teams and writers and directors working on different things and the games of course by a different team. IMO .hack//sign is really the only thing worth watching and even then you need to know its a very slow burn, and don't watch it for action. IIRC .hack//sign is basically the beginning of everything, it's like fate/zero is for fate and can be watched by itself with no problems. I'm also fond of the dub which is how I originally saw it but it's honestly pretty low quality.
The series has a reboot in the G.U. trilogy of games and that whole storyline is separate from the first one and takes place in a sequel to the MMO from the original. It has an anime that's ok. Not really anything special but watchable. Then there are a few spinoff anime from various parts in the time line that are shorter and of varying but generally low quality. The one with a character being played by 3 girls is ok if I'm remembering it right.