The nineties saw many monumental events in the field of video games, such as the full swing rivalry between Nintendo and Sega on the console market, the rise of first person shooters with Doom and Half-Life, and the transition from cartridges to compact discs as the main medium of game distribution. The console market was gradually taking precedence over the coin-operated arcade market, but the public gaming scene still had a place thanks to the popularity of Street Fighter II. Yes, among many things, the nineties were the heyday of one-on-one fighting games, with SF2 starting a wave of competitive virtual martial arts tournaments. Capcom found considerable rivals in SNK's King of Fighters and Midway's Mortal Kombat series, but Sega changed the game with Virtua Fighter by bringing fighters into a more realistic three-dimensional theater. Before upgrading to fully polygonal 3D, Sega tried the waters by utilizing the magic of precariously placed concave mirrors to make 2D sprites seem as if they were holograms popping out from a flat surface. This curious concept was dubbed Holosseum, and it was a fantastic failure in every possible factor.
You can tell Sega tried to make it something special, though. It was their second ever game to use their special "holographic theater" setup after Time Traveler, a Dragon's Lair-style live action game (appropriately designed by Rick Dyer, creator of Dragon's Lair) which made it seem as if the actors were on the video surface instead of inside it. It was a neat-looking game that held minor popularity in arcades, and Sega tried to recreate the magic with Holosseum, with less than stellar results. It gets pretty screwy from the get go, as after plunking in a quarter and hitting the start button, you are greeted by a rather disturbing giant purple head who serves as your announcer. He speaks with an overtly exuberant voice and promises "Pulse-pounding action guaranteed," in those exact words. You are then introduced to the character select screen which gives you a whopping total of four choices. Yep, four and no more. Considering Street Fighter II, released a year prior, had a meaty choice of eight (granted, two were clones of each other, but that's still seven original styles), Holosseum's cast feels pretty barren. Heck, even Fatal Fury felt like it had more variety with eight opponents, despite only having three selectable characters.
Anyway, the cast is mostly comprised of boring martial arts archetypes, including Dompayagen the Muay Thai kickboxer, Chen the kung fu artist, and karate shihan Dave. The most interesting of the four is Jack Garrison, a hulking Ahnuld-esque beefsteak of a man who is billed as a "self-taught martial artist." Looking at him, you feel he'd be the big power wrestler of the cast, but he actually fights entirely with kicks despite having an incredibly sizable upper body. He boasts "my legs are stronger than my arms" after winning matches sometimes, though whether that's a legit reason or macho posturing is undisclosed. All characters have their own quotes and shouts rendered in bad voice acting, and they have their own themes to boot, though their leitmotifs oddly alternate between each other for each new round. The music is pretty energetic but none of it is too memorable, nor is it too grating either. It takes a backseat to the real star of the game: the visual presentation. In its original element, the holographic sprites actually look pretty neat, but MAME has not gotten to the point where it can replicate Sega's illusionary technology. Still, even if you're fighting on a flat black background while playing on emulation, the sprites themselves are fluid and well-animated to the point where they might have been rotoscoped. A neat touch is how blue and red spotlight flashes appear whenever characters strike or block attacks, a subtle yet dynamic effect which looks even cooler on the original machine.
It's best to emphasize the aesthetics for Holosseum, because the gameplay is quite insubstantial. You only get two attack buttons, one for quick attacks and the other for fierce hits. You have different attacks for standing still, moving forward, jumping, or crouching, and every character has at least three special attacks they can perform with a joystick motion in tandem with the fierce button. You can block if you hold the joystick away from the opponent, and you win the round if you drain their lifebar, same as any other fighter. What is different from most fighters is the horrible claustrophobia induced by the battlefield. You can't really move around all that much, making it tough to avoid enemies' attacks or play keep-away games with them. Your best strategy is just to go all out and pepper them with quick attacks, but the collision detection can be off-kilter and the attacks themselves sluggish. The elaborate System-32 sprites may look neat, but their fluid animations translate to slow and chancy attacks that aren't always guaranteed to connect.
You'd need a good friend to play Holosseum with you, because the game is truly dreadful to play as on your lonesome. The artificial intelligence is ruthless and unfair, and with only four playable characters, the one-player gauntlet runs its course way too quickly. After toppling three competitors, the final fight turns out to be... a mirror match. Blegh. They couldn't even be bothered to model a giga-powered boss as your last challenge, but as sketchy as the AI is, perhaps that's for the best. Instead, after beating your "world champion" double, you're subjected to an "extra fight," which is really just an endurance round where you attempt to clobber ten randomly-picked challengers in less than 400 seconds. Considering how quickly the timer counts down and how you cannot lose during this bender, this is easier said than done. Granted, the sucky single-player only emphasizes the importance of playing fighting games with a partner, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to go more than one match in the stiff, gimmicky, and variety-bankrupt Holosseum.
Holosseum turned out to be less substantial than Time Traveler in the long run as a pseudo-holo spectacle. Time Traveler worked with this setup as it was clearly intended to be a game that placed more emphasis on visuals than gameplay, as it the case with most Dragon Lair-style FMV games. However, fighters rely on actual mechanics more than their presentation, and Holosseum lacks on the former front. While it was a novel concept, novelty does not a good fighter make, and Holosseum was quickly forgotten despite its outlandish presentation. Sega made no more holographic theater-style games afterward, as it likely wasn't cost effective to keep making those custom mirrored cabinets for games that played like bunk despite looking neat. Still, if there's one thing anyone can take away from Holosseum, it's the potential for nightmares induced by the disembodied announcer head. Fantastic.