If you're a video game fan born sometime between 1970 and the early 1990s, there's a fair chance you played Sonic games when you were a kid or a young adult.
Sonic was a 1990s superstar, an icon in an age of rapid progress and speed.
But today's kids couldn't give a stuff about Sega's most famous mascot, as evidenced by the company's most recent financial results, announced earlier today. Sonic Boom for 3DS and Wii U sold fewer than half a million units, combined.
Based on a kids TV cartoon, the Sonic Boom games were reviewed poorly and, in the case of Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, released on a moribund console. But Sonic has become a byword for franchise over-exploitation and decline.
Sonic comes off like a grown man, hanging around where the teenagers like to gather
In the last 25 years, a game featuring Sonic in some description has been released, on average, about every six months. That figure doesn't include games released for mobile devices, on which the character has been ubiquitous.
Sonic Generations (2011) garnered decent reviews and sales, but it was an updated rehash of old levels, a tribute aimed at the nostalgia crowd. Prior to that, Sonic Colors (2010) was a passable 3D platformer, released on Wii as that platform was beginning its journey toward the cupboard under the stairs.
In the last decade, 3D games like Sonic: Lost World (2013), Sonic Unleashed (2008), Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) and Shadow the Hedgehog (2005) can best be described as underwhelming. 2D games and racers have fared better, but offered little in the way of differentiation or innovation and have performed best on handhelds, where competition is tough and margins are slim.
In the age of innumerable endless runners, Sonic has been left standing, looking forlornly at his feet.
Indeed, it's revealing that Sonic's biggest successes in the past decade have come when matched up with one-time rival Mario and the expensive Olympics license, in games like Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games (2007), released at the height of the Wii's success. And in the very decent racing game Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (2012) when he was accompanied by a galaxy of Sega stars.
To a young person today, Sonic cuts a pretty tragic figure
Sonic's biggest problem is Sega, a company that has been in a state of crisis for over a decade. When Sega was big enough and tough enough to duke it out with Nintendo, in the era of the Genesis, Sonic was at his peak.
But as the company was dumped out of the console business, and began to run out of ideas, it leaned too heavily on established money-spinners like Sonic and its pachinko business. Earlier this year, the firm announced it would be closing its San Francisco office and shedding 300 jobs, as it sought to focus on mobile and PC gaming.
Sega has never known whether to celebrate Sonic's past or to try to rejuvenate the character for successive new generations and so, inevitably, it attempts both. Take a moment to compare Sonic with that other 1990s icon Lara Croft who, after years of sorry exploitation, has finally been given a new life. Such an operation takes a lot of focus, talent and money, none of which Sega seems willing to bring to the table.
When Sonic is given a new look, such as the most recent rejig, featuring long legs and a weird hipster-esque scarf, the faithful are rarely satisfied, while the uninitiated remain unmoved.
To a young person today, Sonic cuts a pretty tragic figure. TV cartoons seem to be the last holdout for the character, but as a video game star for tweens and older, he looks like a cash-in relic, trotted out with unwelcome rapidity.
Sega's problem is that it has too readily sought to relaunch and rebrand Sonic, while at the same time trying to raise revenues through compilations and anniversary celebrations.
But I think the bigger problem may be Sonic's personality. When he was launched, Sonic was entirely a cocksure rebel seeking to turn the world upside down. Few things date so readily as era-specific rebels. They tend to look sad to the generations that follow, unless their brand is tended with great care, or they die suddenly.
So Sonic comes off like a guy in his late 20s, hanging around where the teenagers like to gather, wearing all the wrong clothes and spouting all the wrong lingo. This is not attractive.
Even though Nintendo has made use of its mascot Mario with alarming regularity, the character has never really changed, and has never sought to challenge the world. Mario is a likeable pal, almost vulnerable and child-like. Sonic is provocative and challenging which was a fine thing, until the thing that he challenged, the early 1990s video game status quo, ceased to exist.
Kids today are looking for rebellious characters who will cock a snoot at the things they find staid and tiresome. Sonic, alas, is one of those things.