FOX’s Mental Samurai Puts Players Through Their Cognitive Paces

Arthur Smith, chairman of A. Smith & Co., talks to TV Formats about Mental Samurai, hosted by Rob Lowe for FOX in the U.S. and billed as an obstacle course for the mind.

Mental Samurai tests players in knowledge, memory, puzzles and sequencing, all while being physically transported around the set at high speeds in a specially designed capsule capable of rotating 360 degrees.

Now in its second season on FOX in the U.S., the series is hosted and produced by Rob Lowe. It comes from Warner Horizon Unscripted & Alternative Television (Ellen’s Game of Games, The Voice) and A. Smith & Co. Productions (Hell’s Kitchen, American Ninja Warrior, The Titan Games).

“The idea for Mental Samurai was born out of a conversation with my great friend and collaborator Mike Darnell, whom I’ve worked with on shows like Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares and Paradise Hotel when he was an executive at FOX,” says Arthur Smith, chairman of A. Smith & Co. “We were reflecting on how A. Smith & Co. had managed to take an obstacle course-style show like American Ninja Warrior and elevate it into the broad entertainment spectacle that it is now. That’s when we wondered, what if we could create an obstacle course for the mind?”

From that seed of an idea, the show moved into development. “We knew we needed to test mental dexterity through different types of information processing, but there was an additional element that we were really excited to test: focus,” says Smith. “We thought about fighter pilots forced to process information under the extreme stress of a flight simulator…and the idea for AVA was born.

“We were so fortunate that Rob Lowe got involved as a producer and host because he’s amazing,” he adds. “His warmth, wit and charisma really make the show come together.”

AVA, which Smith referred to, is a high-speed capsule and robotic arm made by the German company KUKA that, essentially, “whips players around the arena” as they go from question tower to question tower, he explains. “AVA’s range of speed is 70 to 110 degrees per sec, with a top speed that can feel like 60 mph and is capable of twisting and turning a full 360 degrees. We wanted AVA to be just as challenging an element as any of our four towers.”

Because of that, producing this show is no small feat, Smith says. “Behind the scenes, the computers and technology needed to control AVA and sync AVA’s movements with each question is technology that simply didn’t exist even five years ago. It’s remarkable.”

While traditional Q&A shows test knowledge, Mental Samurai has taken the quiz format to a new level. “No show puts its players under such constant pressure, with the combination of AVA’s movements, the time constraints, the question variety, and, oh yeah, one wrong answer stops the game,” says Smith. “It may look easy sitting on the couch, but sitting in the capsule makes things look a bit more…blurry.”

He adds that there is play-along value for the whole family. “One person might have excellent knowledge, another might possess an incredible memory or an eye for puzzles, and someone might even be great at all four towers but not be sure which Kardashian sister is the oldest,” Smith says. “Everyone has a dark spot and AVA’s great at finding it. Mental Samurai is the game that is easy to play, but hard to win.”

In season two, which is currently on-air, there’s more competition, more winning and more fun, says Smith. “We know everyone loved the question towers and AVA, so those obviously remain. But in season two, players set the bar instead of AVA. With our new ‘Circle of Samurai’ format, the first player’s score is the score to beat, and then the remaining players try to top the ‘Reigning Samurai’ in order to advance to the ‘Circle of Samurai.’”

Cash is also now given for each question. It starts at $500, and if a player gets all ten questions correct in under five minutes, the money doubles to $10,000. The player who answers the most correct in the fastest time moves on to the ‘Circle of Samurai’ for a chance to win $100,000.

For international producers adapting the Mental Samurai format, Smith says it’s imperative to have a good cross-section of players from a variety of backgrounds, “because you never know who the next Mental Samurai will be. We’ve had a memory expert who couldn’t answer a simple memory question, and a high-IQ member of Mensa who went out way earlier than expected, while others we didn’t expect to succeed did well.”

Second, he says, is to choose questions that are fun, useful and informational while also covering the widest range of topics possible.

“Last, but certainly not least, make sure AVA is fully charged and find a host as delightful as Rob Lowe.”