Set Design- 10
Show Flow- 8
Potential Viewer Ratings- 7
Play-Along Factor- 10
Overall Rating- 8.6
Premise: Each game is comprised of two rounds: “Towers of Samurai” and “Circle of Samurai”. In the first round, each contestant faces the four-tower mental obstacle course and must answer 12 questions (three from Knowledge, Memory, Sequence and Puzzles towers) in five minutes. If a contestant answers all 12 questions correctly before time expires, (s)he wins $10,000 and advances to the Circle of Samurai end game. If a contestant answers a question incorrectly at any point, their game automatically ends.
In the “Circle of Samurai”, the winner has a base time of 90 seconds to answer one question correctly from each of the four towers. Before the round begins, the time the contestant had remaining in the front game is added to their bonus round base time. Here is the money tree for answering the first, second and third questions correctly:
1st Question: Winnings jump to $25,000
2nd Question: $50,000
3rd Question: $75,000
If a contestant answers all four questions correctly before time expires, (s)he wins $100,000. Answering a question incorrectly automatically ends the round and the contestant leaves with the money they had earned to that point. The top winners from the series have a chance to return for the season finale to compete the $250,000 tournament.
Review: As I watched the series premiere of Mental Samurai, it had just occurred to me how little we think about how many game show formats are defined by a specific central prop. For example: Wheel of Fortune’s identity revolves around its giant cash-filled wheel, Finders Keepers’s personality is expressed by its two-story, eight-room house and Hollywood Squares has its giant tic-tac-toe game board. Of all the props we have seen utilized on the thousands of game shows that have been created, one of the more effective and meaningful set pieces to be use to set the underlying tone and mood for a show is a lone chair. The use of a chair – or in a case like Pyramid, a couple of chairs – can symbolize isolation, a subtle sense of subservience and being forced into the hot spotlight with all of the attention focused on you, which subsequently increases the suspense and intensity in any game. You may have seen game shows like Hot Seat, Mastermind, 2-Minute Drill, The Chair, The Chamber and even the original version of Who Wants To Be Millionaire to a certain extent use this piece of furniture masterfully to bolster their respective formats while instilling fear, distraction, tension and nervousness into any contestant who is courageous enough to step up and sit down to take on the daunting challenge. We can add Mental Samurai to this list as well.
Mental Samurai is like if Big Brain Academy was transformed into an indoor theme park thrill ride. It partially lives up to its own hype as the “first ever obstacle course for the mind” – although it is not the “first-ever” to do this if you were to count Canada’s Smartest Person Gauntlet endgame. This game show brilliantly features an incredible vast variety of mini-games within each of the four mental skill set towers – Knowledge, Sequence, Memory and Puzzles. This format is well-developed and well designed for contestants to engage in a game filled with unpredictability and intellectually-stimulating challenges which require having a nimble and sharp mind while being jostled about by the show’s resident AI, “AVA”.
The robotic chair capsule may seem like an ancillary gimmick. However, it serves as the same purpose as the devices used on The Chair and The Chamber: to ultimately boost contestants’ adrenaline while distracting them from competently and comfortably playing an already difficult game. The five-minute front game rounds are well-timed to create close games whenever contestants have three questions or less to go and give contestants just enough of a sporting chance to complete the challenge while giving them a false sense of security of having ample time to conquer the dozen-question gauntlet.
Two of my favorite games from the series thus far are Initial Impressions from the Knowledge tower and Name Dropper from the Memory tower. Initial Impressions is a fun, minimalist rebus puzzle game that mixes pop culture with clever wordplay. It reminds me of a mini-game that could have been used for a 1980s game show pilot called Puzzlers. Name Dropper is a tricky visual game that will make you say, “Ugh; I should have focused on this more.” This deceptively simple game seems easy by memorizing groups of objects within the picture until the question appears, especially if contestants are asked to identify a name out of a group of people who look similar.
Rob Lowe is doing a great job of emceeing this show, even though his role and responsibilities as a conventional host has been reduced with AVA asking the questions and each contestant has an introduction video in lieu of a typical game show interview. I am impressed with Lowe’s ability to still squeeze in a brief and decent pre-game interview even with the intro video. His effervescent energy and enthusiasm is excellent for a tough game show where contestants need constant encouragement to help them thrive in the game.
Overall, Mental Samurai is a fantastic game show that comprehensively tests numerous mental skill sets from general knowledge to basic memory with audio, video and pictorial puzzles. This is a fun, frantic, fast-paced game that anyone can play even with the general knowledge questions, which aren’t difficult to answer. I didn’t notice any glaring issues with this show outside of the repetitious front game. However, the amazing play-along factor along with the barrage of questions and puzzles available for viewers to answer and provide a great mental workout solves the redundancy issue of five contestants playing the same game. I believe this excellent format combined with a solid host at the helm will equate to a second season renewal by FOX.