I was looking over Sega's Genesis poll, in which site visitors decide the next game that gets put up on Xbox Live, and was reminded, upon seeing Streets of Rage and Golden Axe, of the Brawler. I can remember playing them as a kid, but I've never really thought about them. Like, for instance, why are they kind of frozen in time? You get the occasional update, but Sega's Genesis poll is basically a list of IP that was pretty much ignored after that system disappeared. It's no surprise that Streets of Rage and Golden Axe take up two of the six slots. Naturally, I have a couple of ideas why Brawlers are so tightly tied to a five year time period that lasted from 1987-1992.
The Brawler's popularity in the US is linked with a pretty specific cultural moment. And when it passed, the Brawler's glory days were over. I have to believe that, even though these games were coming from Japan, they were heavily influenced by American movies in the late 80's and early 90's. Think about it, the B-movie action heroes of the day were basically Brawlers. Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal were the martial arts movie stars. They ran around cleaning up crack dens with karate in their slow-as-molasses fight scenes. Even a blockbuster like Lethal Weapon had two buddies, one of them a martial arts expert, running around kicking ass.
Brawlers also fit in nicely with Reagan era America. They were all about taking back the streets from hoods and gangs, saying no to drugs and rescuing babes in mini skirts. Renegade, Bad Dudes, Double Dragon, Final Fight, Streets of Rage, etc. - they were all based on that premise. There were a few exceptions, Golden Axe the most notable of these, but for the most part it was all about going into the inner city and bringing them a healthy dose of Reagan era justice.
And then there's the fashion and the hair. A lot of other videogames had characters that you could take to any era pretty easily, like MegaMan and Mario, but Brawlers were frequently rooted in the here and now. I mean just look at Streets of Rage and Double Dragon - shining examples of late 80's/ early 90's fashion. Streets of Rage featured a guy in jeans and a t-shirt wearing a headband, a female character in a red mini skirt and a kid who kicked ass in rollerblades. The Lee brothers of Double Dragon fame even had mullets. Sure you could update all these guys, but their real world street wear was iconic. You don't just take somebody out of their jean jacket and t-shirt and put them in SWAT gear, which is what would likely happen in an update.