The short answer: just watch it in release order! Start with the anime that came out first and gradually work to the most recent entry. While many may argue that certain versions are wastes of time or that it’s better to watch everything chronologically, here’s my reasoning:
Fate’s story revolves around the Holy Grail War, an epic battle royale in which mages summon legendary figures from across history to fight for the wish-granting power of the Holy Grail itself.
However, Fate/Stay Night was originally a visual novel (an interactive story with branching paths), so the plot itself depended on the love interest the player chose near the start of the game resulting in a unique sequence of events, called a “route”. Depending on your choice of Saber the noble servant, Rin the young mage girl, or Sakura the shy classmate, one of the three routes will transpire:
1. Saber: the Fate route, the most accessible one, and the one the game will default you to playing first.
2. Rin: the Unlimited Blade Works route, assumes you’ve already played Fate, with even more plot twists.
3. Sakura: the Heaven’s Feel route, the final route, and the darkest one.
As you can imagine, anime can’t adapt three timelines at once! So in 2006, “Fate/Stay Night” aired as a 26-episode show adapting the Fate route, taking small chunks from other routes to give fans an accessible yet well-rounded exposure to the world of the Holy Grail Wars. But perhaps it was a little too well-rounded, as it ended up being an action-modern-fantasy-epic AND a romantic-comedy-slice-of-life-harem. Adding Studio DEEN’s cheap-looking fight scenes to the mix, this first Fate anime was very accurate to its source material, but many agree that it didn’t truly do the story justice.
The same could be said for the 105 minute film version released in 2010. With more than 24 hours of play time necessary per route in the visual novel, there is a LOT of content to take in that inevitably has to be cut from an anime, resulting in some climaxes not feeling as strong as they should. However there is still some value to watching these Studio DEEN anime if you’re keen on appreciating Fate!
Fate/Zero is a prequel to the events of Fate/Stay Night, beginning as a light novel series before being adapted into an anime series by Studio Ufotable between 2011 and 2012. In contrast to the previous entries, Fate/Zero is an excellent series! The use of digital post-processing employs all manner of hues and patterns of light diffusion to create a uniquely mature spectacle, with stunning backgrounds and fight scenes to boot. The original story written by Gen Urobuchi contains his signature style of tragedy, building up various idealistic figures before smashing their goals right in front of them.
So naturally it makes sense to just watch Fate/Zero and skip the 2006 series right? Who wants to endure 26 episodes of supposed mediocrity just to see 25 episodes of greatness? And doesn’t Fate/Zero take place prior to Fate/Stay Night chronologically anyway? As tempting as this mind-set is, it almost goes against the creator’s intentions. Because Fate/Zero was a prequel made AFTER Fate/Stay Night was created, it had to be written with a pre-established ending involving all characters failing so that the battle could continue in the next entry.
Normally this would result in the stakes being lowered since the audience already knows the outcome, but like I said: Gen Urobuchi’s (aka The Urobutcher’s) trademark is tragedy. Knowing what fates will befall these characters hammers home the irony even harder. Their fleeting moments of happiness and hope are accompanied by a tinge of melancholy when you know that your favourite characters are simply doomed to face an unfair defeat, and every instance of doubt and betrayal is incredibly foreboding.
The Ancient Greek form of tragedy prides itself on dramatic irony; plays such as Oedipus Rex or even Shakespearean plays like Hamlet were all expansions of well-known folk stories. It gave audiences a closer relationship to the characters, and a deeper understanding of the pain they went through. The same can be said for Fate/Zero: how can we truly appreciate these characters’ struggles without knowing that it’s all for nothing? This is the reason I recommend watching the 2006 series before Fate/Zero in order to get the best experience possible.
Studio Ufotable recently aired a 25-episode adaptation of the Unlimited Blade Works route as well, however I wouldn’t necessarily consider it a replacement for the 2006 series since, as I mentioned above, there are plot twists in Unlimited Blade Works that don’t get introduced in the Fate route, and thus aren’t addressed in Fate/Zero. Watching UBW after Fate/Zero gives you a new take on the original series and should be considered a separate experience.
Ufotable will also be producing a film trilogy based on the Heaven’s Feel route (beginning in 2017) which will probably also be its own thing. Since Heaven’s Feel is the least accessible route of the original visual novel, I’d still recommend you watch everything prior in order to prepare yourself.
So in summary:
- Fate/Stay Night (26 episodes – DEEN, 2006) (the Unlimited Blade Works film from 2010 is optional)
- Fate/Zero (25 episodes – Ufotable, 2011-2012)
- Fate/Stay Night [Unlimited Blade Works] (25 episodes – Ufotable, 2014-2015)
- Fate/Stay Night [Heaven’s Feel] (Film trilogy – Ufotable, 2017-????)
Have a different opinion? Let us know which way you’ve watched the Fate series below!