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‘Mental Samurai’ and the History of High-IQ Game Shows

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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.

Dr. I.Q.

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.

Twenty-One

Twenty-One

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

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.

Jeopardy

Jeopardy

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.

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