Tonight sees the premiere of Mental Samurai, a new game show on FOX hosted by Rob Lowe that promises a “mental obstacle course” where contestants have to tackle a dozen difficult questions in five minutes for a chance at $100,000. The whole time, they’re encased in a transparent pod that rotates 360 degrees around the set to face multiple monitors. It’s a real brain-melter, and makes other game shows on the air look like child’s play.
But game shows haven’t always been Wheel of Fortune-easy. The genre has plenty of examples of programs that tested the limits of the best and brightest. Let’s delve back into the archives to explore game shows that were for super brainiacs only.
Interestingly enough, radio quiz shows and TV ones were fairly contemporaneous in development – both debuted in the late 1930s. Dr. I.Q. was one of the first big ones on the radio, and it made the jump to television in 1953. The program was primitive by modern standards — the host would pose questions to the audience, and randomly selected members who answered correctly would be rewarded with silver dollars for their efforts, as well as a chance to spin the “Wisdom Wheel” for a hundred bucks. The show was wildly successful, but it wasn’t easy — the questions ranged widely from general interest trivia to real puzzlers.
We can’t talk about game show history without touching on the scandals that rocked the industry in the late 1950s. Shows like Twenty-One and The $64,000 Question built incredible drama with contestants racking up strings of wins answering increasingly difficult questions. Only one problem, though: they were rigged. Initial airings of Twenty-One were dismal failures because the questions were too hard, leading the producers to recruit contestants and give them instructions, answers and stage directions. On $64,000, they did the opposite — the show would deliberately give more difficult questions to contestants the sponsors disliked to get them booted off the show quicker. Those scandals basically killed the difficult game show for several decades.
GE College Bowl
Widely regarded as one of the toughest shows of its era, GE College Bowl, which debuted in 1959, pit four-member teams of college students against each other to win grants and scholarship funds for their school. Formatted like an athletic contest, the show was wildly popular on both TV and the radio, and it pushed its young players to their mental limits with increasingly difficult questions as teams struggled to hang on for five shows straight and retire as undefeated champions. In 1962, Britain launched its own version of the show, the long-running University Challenge.
There was one exception, though. One of the longest-running game shows on television, Jeopardy (stream it on Netflix) premiered in 1964 and has remained on the air for over half a century. The show’s essential gimmick — they provide the answers, you say the questions — wasn’t particularly original, but Jeopardy built a following for its robust range of subject matter and willingness to go deep into a variety of subjects. The show also ramped up the difficulty even further for the annual Tournament of Champions. Even the process for getting on the show is rigorous, requiring a 50-question practice test followed by a second written test and a mock game session.
Win Ben Stein’s Money
Nasal-voiced conservative actor Ben Stein is probably best known for his role in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but he’s also a noted pundit and evolution denier who had his own game show in the late 1990s. The gimmick of Win Ben Stein’s Money was that he was putting his paycheck up against the contestants – if they beat him in answering the show’s often very difficult problems, they’d take home the cash earmarked for his salary. The difficulty in Win Ben Stein’s Money came not just from the questions, but from the fact that normies had to compete against Stein directly.
While some games on this list are here because of their questions, the short-lived Winning Lines was bone hard because of its complex and unusual rules. The game started with a collection of 49 contestants, each assigned a unique number. Questions are asked and the answer is one of those numbers — if it’s yours and you buzz in, you go on to the next round. From there, things got even weirder, as future rounds were more complex and culminated with a final segment where the winner had 15 seconds to memorize the answers to 45 questions and then forced to give both the answers and their number on the screen. It was a mess and didn’t last long, with the U.S. version on the air for just over a month.
Britain has a reputation for quiz shows that definitely push the envelope when it comes to difficulty, and Only Connect is a sterling example. The program, which debuted in 2008, has an unusual format for its questions. Teams are given sets of clues and must come up with the connective tissue that unites them in a scant forty seconds. And that’s just the opening round — as the game goes on, things get more and more devious, until teams must organize a group of sixteen clues into a matrix of four connected sets. It’s hard to describe and even harder to do, with fans playing along at home frequently puzzled by the show’s obtuse but bulletproof logic.
The English-speaking world doesn’t have a lock on high-I.Q. game shows, and one of the toughest and coolest we’ve seen comes from South Korea. The Genius is a unique hybrid of reality TV and quiz show, where thirteen contestants from different walks of life are brought together in a house to compete with one another in a variety of mental challenges. In addition to cognitive skills, the tests in The Genius measure emotional intelligence and intuition. It’s available subtitled and is definitely worth a watch if you’re into smart people putting it all on the line for fame and fortune.
Mental Samurai airs at 9 p.m.EST on Fox.
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