Dreamcast Racing Wheels - An Overview

The Dreamcast is something of a haven for racing game fans – between Crazy Taxi, Daytona USA 2001, Ferrari F355 Challenge, Sega Rally 2 and OutRun, it’s home to many of the greatest arcade racers ever made, not to mention plenty of other brilliant racing titles, like Metropolis Street Racer, Le Mans 24 Hours, Spirit of Speed 1937 and Re-Volt. With this kind of a lineup, it seems like the perfect console to pair with a racing wheel. Unfortunately, the reality is that it’s pretty hard to get hold of a wheel that lives up to the mentioned classics…

Recently, I set out to try and get the best wheel I could for the console – one that would propel the blissful evenings I was having with Sega Rally 2 into sheer ecstasy. As I scoured the internet for morsels of information on the many wheels produced for the console, I found that four wheels were typically held in higher regard than the rest:

  • Sega Race Controller/Rally Wheel – The Dreamcast’s first-party wheel was commonplace and considered reliable by some, but others regarded it as cheaply made and bare bones.
  • Mad Catz MC2 – Perhaps the most popular choice for serious racing fans, this wheel was lauded for its technical features, but reports of breakages lined up with Mad Catz’ track record for cheap construction.
  • Interact Concept 4 – A wheel with a low attach rate, but very highly regarded by some for having similar features to the MC2 and besting that wheel in construction quality.
  • Thrustmaster Ferrari Racing Wheel – Maybe the scarcest wheel of the four, this wheel nonetheless received rave reviews from those who had paired it with Ferrari F355 Challenge.
By chance, I ended up owning three of these wheels and modding one of them over the following months. I’ve decided to review each of them to ensure that other eager fans on the net will be better informed than I was, particularly with how rare and pricey these wheels can be nowadays!

First purchase – Thrustmaster Ferrari Racing Wheel
For my first wheel, it just so happened that the rarest of the above choices was one of the most readily available when I looked, as a fairly priced specimen was available in my country when I began my search. I was excited to get hold of the Thrustmaster Ferrari owing to its reputation (among a small group of users, I might add), but some harsh realities would be exposed after unleashing it from its smart packaging.
But let’s get the good out of the way first! For starters, the wheel really looks the part – it’s probably the best looking wheel of the big four right out of the box, with a sleek design and sharp Ferrari branding that undeniably gives it an air of authenticity (not to mention making it a perfect pair for Ferrari F355 Challenge and OutRun). It has some strong features to back up the look too. Every button and control on the Dreamcast controller is present and in easy reach – A, B, X, Y, a D-pad, an analog stick, and Start are available on the face, with paddles on the rear of the wheel also corresponding to L, R, A and X and the included pedals mapping to L and R as you'd expect.

These work in conjunction with perhaps the wheel’s most useful feature, the “Mode” button, to allow full compatibility with the Dreamcast library, including games which don’t typically support racing wheel peripherals. “Mode” essentially switches the wheel into a standard Dreamcast controller, allowing you to finally play games like Hydro Thunder the way you always wanted to. The presence of both paddles and connectable pedals makes the wheel appealing for those who have either preference for acceleration and braking.

The wheel has both suction cups on its base and a clamp that can be used to attach it to a table or a desk, negating any concerns of it moving around if you wish to use it on a hard surface. Finally, the expansion slot on the side of the wheel is shaped to house either a VMU or a Vibration Pack, giving you the chance to add some feedback to the games that support it. That said, you might be underwhelmed by how light the vibration effect is, owing to how far from the steering column the slot on the base of the wheel is.
It's too bad then that the wheel’s performance doesn’t match its strong first impressions. Despite the paddles on the rear of the wheel being foolproof in theory, they’re positioned in quarter-circle segments around the steering column, with the top pair mapped to X and A (gear changing) and the bottom pair mapped to L and R (acceleration/braking). This means that you’ll be attempting to use your ring and little fingers on the bottom pair if you don’t want to use pedals, which isn’t easy! To make matters worse, the paddles don’t rotate with the wheel, leaving you to stretch your fingers as far as possible on those sharp turns.

Both the wheel and the pedals have a stiffness to them that can prove problematic – the tight bungee cord-based centring mechanism in the wheel makes turning it something of a workout, and when coupled with the wheel’s lightness, can cause some unwanted lateral movements if you’re using the wheel in your lap. The stiff pedals then have a tendency to slip around on carpeted floor, though I wasn’t able to test them on hard floor.

And lastly...there’s the sensitivity.

This is the elephant in the room for Dreamcast racing wheels – it seems as though almost all games that support racing wheels enforce a substantial dead zone at the centre of the wheel’s motion. This dead zone essentially means the game won’t register movement from the wheel until it is turned beyond the dead zone’s reach, which by default is very wide for most games. This not only causes something of an input lag, but also means your movements aren’t very accurately mapped to those in the game. With most wheels for the console having no workaround for the dead zone, they have received a reputation for unresponsive performance, despite this issue not really being any given wheel’s fault.

Upon using the Thrustmaster Ferrari (which is one such wheel without a fix for this issue), I quickly became familiar with the problems this dead zone presents. While games with slow, gradual steering movements, such as Ferrari F355 Challenge, were almost acceptable to play; games with fast turns and split-second adjustments, such as Sega Rally 2, were borderline unplayable, as the wheel’s delay and odd movement mapping is all that’s needed to throw off your cornering skills. Unfortunately, the Dreamcast controller mode on the Thrustmaster wheel did nothing to fix this either.

While some users on the internet either claim to have gotten used to the dead zone or are unaware of its existence entirely, any wheel without compensation for it, such as the Thrustmaster Ferrari, will likely prove frustrating for anyone trying to get the best racing experience for the Dreamcast, let alone those wishing to set some new lap records.

The second attempt… Mad Catz MC2
After being disappointed by Thrustmaster’s wheel, I hatched plans to create a modded Sega Race Controller that would live up to my expectations (more on that later). At first this was because the most highly regarded wheel for the Dreamcast, the Mad Catz MC2, was simply too rare and pricey to consider…until I managed to score one for a measly £10! There are a number of strong reviews for this wheel online, but does it fully live up to its reputation?
While slightly more toy-like in appearance than Thrustmaster’s wheel, the MC2 is similarly feature packed. The face of the wheel features B, C, Y, Z, L and R buttons on its face (but no A or X… Yeah, we’ll get into these face buttons later), as well as a D-pad in the centre and Start and Accudrive buttons (the latter of which we’ll also get into). There are then two additional gear-changing options mapped to A and X – the paddles on the rear of the wheel, and the stick to the right of it. Pedals are again included, mapped to L and R. An LED speedometer display is located behind the wheel, which lights up according to the pressure placed upon the R input, in a cute touch. It should be noted that the MC2 isn’t actually picked up as a racing wheel by the console, meaning that, like the Thrustmaster Ferrari in its Dreamcast controller mode, it has full compatibility with the Dreamcast library.

The MC2 has suction cups on its base much like the Thrustmaster, which can be similarly used to fix it to a flat surface, but maybe its best stability feature are the legs that can be extended from the base, which essentially fix the unit to your lap. It’s a great feature which is ideal if you prefer to use a wheel this way. The MC2 features a single VMU slot like most racing wheels for the console, but also an internal vibration motor mapped to the Dreamcast’s second expansion slot, meaning you don’t have to worry about swapping between one or the other. I should also note that locating the VMU slot directly behind the wheel, rather than to one side as on most other wheels for the console, makes it much more visible during gameplay, which you might enjoy in the few games that actually use it, such as Daytona USA 2001 and POD 2.

Maybe the most celebrated feature of the MC2 though is the previously mentioned “Accudrive” function, which makes it the only commercially released Dreamcast wheel to allow you to overcome the dreaded dead zone. Using the speedometer display, it’s not only possible to reduce the dead zone region as much as you like (or increase it, if you’re feeling sadistic!), but also to adjust the wheel’s maximum range, in case you feel more comfortable turning the wheel only short distances. I personally found that reducing the maximum point by a couple of notches hit the sweet spot.
So, with all this being said, the MC2 must be the bona fide best way to play Dreamcast racers, right? Well, so the reviews led me to believe. In practice, the wheel has a number of shortcomings that unfortunately go against its positive reputation. First of all, the face buttons are something of a mess of decisions. The lack of an A button means you’ll need to switch between using the face buttons and paddles constantly when navigating menus. This confusion is further compounded by the random choice of other buttons on the face – there’s really no need for digital versions of the typically analog L and R triggers, and why have C and Z when the majority of games map them to L and R anyway? Making matters worse are the ergonomics – the face buttons aren’t as comfortable to press as on the other wheels I tried, and are all noticeably less responsive too.

With a lack of acceleration/braking paddles (and the hokey L and R buttons certainly being no substitute), I’d say this wheel is better for people who prefer pedals, but even they might be disappointed by the pedals included. They use a bizarre and noisy double hinge construction unlike anything found in real vehicle pedals, and actually need to be clicked in at the end of their travel in order to achieve full input, which doesn’t feel natural at all for acceleration or braking. Luckily they use a DE-9 connector like many other racing pedals (including Thrustmaster’s), so you might be able to swap these for a better pair.

I was hoping that the internal vibration would solve the problems I had encountered with using other racing wheels (for example, Crazy Taxi normally refuses to acknowledge a Vibration Pack through a wheel), but functionality seemed to be intermittent. In fact, between Sega Rally 2, Daytona USA 2001 and Crazy Taxi, Crazy Taxi was the only one to pick up the motor and provide vibration! This brings me on to my final concern – Mad Catz’ track record for build quality. Moreso than other wheels for the Dreamcast, I had heard reports of the MC2 suffering from poor construction, and indeed my specimen had broken centring mechanism springs which had to be replaced, and a few broken speedometer LEDs. Obviously these issues will vary from unit to unit, but it’s worth noting for the long run that this wheel was the most lacklustre in physical quality of the three I handled.

Contrary to its popularity with Dreamcast fans, the MC2 is in no way a perfect wheel, but thanks to the Accudrive feature, it’s probably the best way to really enjoy Dreamcast racing games if you’re looking to use a wheel from stock. Just as I got my MC2 however, I was finishing the touches on a more involved project, which nonetheless proved to be the definitive way to drive on the Dreamcast – that is, if you’re willing to look under the hood…

The secret weapon – Modded Sega Race Controller
By all means, the stock Sega Race Controller is a decent way to play racing games on the Dreamcast. It has the best ergonomics of the three wheels in this article, with easy to reach buttons in suitable positions and a comfortable maximum range and tension to its centring mechanism, and it’s heavier than the Thrustmaster Ferrari, so it won’t slide around on your lap and shouldn’t be too bad on a desk either. It has some noticeable omissions though – there’s no option for pedals (only a pair of, admittedly very comfortable, paddles behind the wheel), the expansion slot doesn’t permit a Vibration Pack (even though it works with most games if you disassemble one), and of course…there’s the dreaded dead zone.
But the Race Controller is also the only wheel for the Dreamcast that has seen popularity in the hardware modding scene. In particular, well-known Dreamcast modder and YouTuber Ben Ryves managed to create a circuit in 2019 which allows the Race Controller to overcome the dreaded dead zone, and since then, circuit-board.de member n00b has created a PCB design to allow others to implement this fix into their own wheels. Furthermore, YouTuber brunocore2 took note of the Race Controller’s hidden vibration compatibility, and in 2014 implemented a motor into the wheel itself to bring the rumble effect right into the forefront. Maybe someone needs to bring all these tweaks together to create a worthy Sega peripheral...?
Here’s the result of the ingredients! Ben Ryves very kindly provided me with a populated board of his de-dead zone mod, which very straightforwardly connects to the existing Race Controller PCB. As with the Accudrive function on the MC2, this makes a massive difference as to how playable most racing games are – Sega Rally 2 in particular is not only functional now, but also so much fun with the Race Controller that the thought rarely occurs to me to swap back to a standard controller. The dead zone can even be reinstated for games that actually work around it (such as Tokyo Highway Challenge 2) simply by turning the wheel in one direction during boot-up.
I also added internal vibration, inspired by brunocore2’s work, but in an enhanced manner – I used a Performance TremorPak Plus instead of a standard Vibration Pack, which allows both a memory card and vibration to function from the same expansion slot, with the aim being to have maximum compatibility with games that are picky about what device is in which slot. Not one to skimp on the details, I even designed a custom icon for the memory card function for that authentic Sega touch! As with brunocore2’s mod, the vibration motor was situated in the centre of the wheel, which, together with the boosted power of the TremorPak Plus motor, really brings noticeable feedback to each supported game.
And here’s how the final product looks! I have some history in customising action figures and models, so for the final touches (and actually the ones which required the most time), I redecorated the wheel to resemble those found on Sega Model 3 arcade units. This included dying the buttons black with Rit Dyemore, giving the wheel hub a metallic finish with Tamiya spray paint, designing and affixing a Sega logo waterslide decal to the hub, and fashioning a makeshift removable cover out of Lego for the now fully internalised expansion slot. The Race Controller didn’t look bad before, but it now has a much sleeker aesthetic that fully lives up to the arcade classics playable on the Dreamcast.

It took a fair amount of time to put this together, but I’m far happier with the result than I was with either of the two (three, if we’re to include the original Race Controller?) commercially released wheels I tried otherwise. Some may lament the lack of pedals with this option, but for people like myself who prefer accelerating and braking with paddles on racing wheels, a modded Race Controller like this is hands down the best racing wheel option for the Dreamcast. It’s comfortable, responsive, and strikes a good balance of VMU and vibration compatibility. It’s pretty much what Sega should have given us in the first place!

* This article was originally published here


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