One thing that makes classic gaming interesting are special controllers that help you better "connect" to a game. We're talking about light guns, fishing rods, motion controllers, and yes - steering wheels. Gripping a wheel makes you feel as if you're in the driver's seat, and offers more power and precision. I know people who have spent hundreds of dollars constructing state-of-the-art driving "rigs" for the latest Gran Turismo. It's big business!
A reader requested a steering wheel review special and I thought it was a pretty good idea. After all, I have quite a few that aren't doing much good in the closet! I began with the intention of only reviewing actual steering wheels, but expanded it to include other, smaller driving devices. This page turned out to be a history lesson of sorts, covering eight driving controllers spanning over 30 years from 1977 to 2008!
Not all driving controllers are created equal. Some are too tight or difficult to stabilize. Others are poorly calibrated or awkward to use. And then there are practical concerns. Larger controllers can be expensive, running into hundreds of dollars. And then you have the age-old dilemma of where to store these bulky things. Let's face it, most end up deep in a closet or the bowels of a garage, just under the VR gear.
I try to evaluate each on a number of factors, namely comfort, functionality, special features, and size. I was going to include price estimates, but upon perusing ebay it appears that just about all of these can be acquired at a reasonable price! I guess I'm not the only one cleaning out my closet!
No steering wheel review special would be complete without including Atari's original driving controllers. Atari knew all about high-precision analog controls. Their Night Driver arcade game was outfitted with a steering wheel way back in 1976!
A pair of these driving controllers came packaged with every copy of Indy 500 (Atari 2600, 1977), necessitating a thick orange box that every kid pined for. These controllers are nearly identical in design to Atari's paddle controllers with one major distinction: their dials can continually rotate in either direction. This makes sense when you consider the real Indy 500 race boils down to a series of left turns!
The controller fits nicely into the palm of one hand while the other turns the knob. There's a single button used for acceleration, which is easy to hold in. The dial is perfectly-tuned, making it easy to perform either sharp turns or apply slight adjustments. You can really get into a flow once a course has registered in your muscle memory.
The controllers are small and easy to store away. Unlike paddle controllers, each driving controller has its own plug (each pair of paddles shares a single plug). In addition, the decal on the front of the controller depicts an orange race car instead of a tennis racket.
Verdict: Only one game supports these controllers, but it's a classic that every retro gamer will want to own.
Wins Award For "Most likely to be accidentally yanked out of controller bin while rooting around for paddles"
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Expansion Module #2 (Coleco, 1982)for the Colecovision
While testing this controller on my Colecovision-compatible Phoenix console I noticed the wheel wasn't being responsive at all, although the foot pedal seemed to work fine. After a little research I discovered the problem. This controller has a compartment that holds 4 "C" batteries! Who keeps those lying around??
This is the only steering wheel I own that spins freely in either direction, but it's not the most responsive. Sometimes it feels like you need to spin the heck out of it just to change lanes. The foot pedal does a fine job of letting you regulate your speed, although it is kind of annoying how the pedal component plugs into the front of the steering wheel.
To the right of the wheel is a bay that holds a standard Colecovision controller, letting you use the stick to shift gears. The base of the steering wheel is lined with suction cups, but this controller is so light and easy to turn, it works just fine sitting in your lap. Likewise the foot pedal feels comfortable and tends to remain in place (at least on carpet).
The construction feels a little cheap. Those "gauge" stickers look cheesy and the wheel is only molded on the front half, so the back feels rough. This controller is modest in size compared to most wheels, and I like how the pedal fits into the right bay for easy storage.
In addition to Turbo, three other games work with the expansion module #2, but they are mediocre at best: Destructor, Bump N Jump, and the Dukes of Hazzard.
Verdict: This wheel adds arcade flair to Turbo, setting it apart from similar racers like Atari's Pole Position. Otherwise it's not particularly useful.
Wins Award for "Most Likely to forget the batteries."
Find Colecovision Expansion Module #2 on eBay, Amazon
Sega Arcade Racer (1995)for Sega Saturn
This wheel is super comfortable! It's easy to turn, self-centering, and has just the right sensitivity. The handle grips conform to your hands perfectly, with buttons within easy reach of your thumbs.
The Saturn has a pretty decent selection of racers that support the wheel. It works like a charm with Daytona USA, which uses the far right button (C) to accelerate, and the far left button (Z) to brake. I find this less cumbersome than messing with floor pedals, albeit slightly less realistic. For changing gears, handy "flippers" behind the wheel are easy to hit with your fingers.
It's possible to adjust the angle of the wheel. I recommend raising it high, because otherwise you might go to make a sharp turn and inadvertently ram yourself in the nuts! I speak from experience! The controller is somewhat bulky in size but at least it's just one piece. It feels well-constructed with a sturdy metal base.
As for game support, there are a slew of racers for the Saturn you can use this with. For this review I tested it with Daytona USA, Sega Rally, Hang On GP, and Manx TT. In every case the wheel felt very comfortable and natural.
Conclusion: The ease-of-use and precision of this wheel is bound to enhance your racing experience. If you're serious about your Saturn racing you should consider picking up one of these.
Wins Award for "No pedals and we're fine with it"
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The Mad Catz Wheel is relatively large and equipped with suction cups on its base, but who sits in front of a table to play games? I just stick this thing in my lap. To the right of the wheel is a little gear shift you can push up and down. There's a separate foot section you set on the floor with two pedals, but that thing does not want to stay in place!
For the sake of this review I revisited Ridge Racer (1995) first. I was a bit hesitant, as this game was only designed to support digital control (Sony's dual-analog controller wasn't introduced until August 1997). I was pleased to discover this wheel works like a charm! Holy cow!
There's just one catch. I noticed I was stuck in 4th gear, putting around the track like an old lady. Apparently my accelerator pedal is not giving enough umph, even when I floored the thing.
Next I tried Rage Racer and Gran Turismo. Same deal - great steering but limited speed. Clearly there is something wrong with my controller. I took the pedal box apart to take a look but there was nothing I could tinker with.
Later I remembered all the buttons are represented on the wheel, so I should be able to drive without the pedals. This approach did work but trying to reassign the buttons was a confusing process. It doesn't help that two buttons are labeled I and II (?), and the two on the back of the wheel are not labeled at all.
This steering wheel is a little tight but it's not a big problem because it's so sensitive you never have to twist it very far. If anything you have to be careful not to oversteer. The gear shifter feels cheap, and I don't like how you push up to downshift.
Conclusion: This controller is very clunky and clearly prone to technical issues. The steering isn't bad but is it worth the hassle? I have my doubts.
Wins Award for: Most likely to get deposited into a trash can.
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The first time you grip the Jogcon it feels pretty good! That's because it has two long, fat grips that mold to your palms, not unlike the Virtual Boy controller. The dial can be used in two ways. There's a circular indentation that allows you to steer with your left thumb. This works okay as long you keep the "max rotation" setting low.
If you prefer the feel of actual steering, you can also turn it with your fingers like an Atari paddle controller. The problem with that approach is that you'll lose access to the left shoulder buttons. Frankly I don't think either approach is as functional or comfortable as using a normal analog controller.
There's something else you should know about the Jogcon: it has force feedback! It actually feels "heavy" to turn and when going against the grain it will fight you! This is meant to simulate the resistance of a real steering wheel, I guess. It's pretty cool, and you have to wonder how they achieved such a dramatic effect in such a small controller.
According to Wikipedia, the controller is also compatible with a smattering of other games like V-Rally 2, Pac-Man World, and Breakout. Apparently it can also be used with Ridge Racer V for the PS2.
Conclusion: This is kind of a novelty item for those who are fascinated by weird, one-off controllers. Technically it's very interesting but for day-to-day gaming it's just not practical. This is destined to spend years in a drawer, at least until a visiting friend picks it up and asks "what the hell is this?!"
Wins Award for: Most likely to be forgotten.
Find Namco Jogon on eBay, Amazon
The pedal section is firm and will not slide around when you try to use it. The two pedals have plenty of range and just the right "give". The "dashboard" has a gauge that lights up to indicate how far down you're pressing the accelerator pedal. Not terribly useful but a nice touch.
So how does it play? Well, the first thing you notice is that the wheel is tight - very tight. It will strongly resist you when you attempt to make a sharp turn. Does this have a detrimental effect on gameplay? Yes it does, I'm afraid.
I started with Daytona USA, and on the easy track the wheel worked like a charm, allowing me to weave through cars and effortlessly jockey for position. Once I tried the more curvy "dinosaur canyon" course however, the tightness of the wheel became a serious liability. Next I tried the wheel with Sega GT, and found myself straining to perform even the most basic turns.
Finally I popped in Sega Rally 2. This one allowed me to make good use of the gear shift, which molds to your hand and feels good. The problem is, that only leaves one hand to turn the wheel, and with the wheel being so tight you'll want to use both hands.
There are other issues as well. The button layout is confusing. The main button (A) is mapped to the unlabeled right flipper, which can be hard to locate if you don't know it's there. I assume the left flippy is the X button, but it's unlabeled so who knows? Storage is another major issue. Both parts of this controller are considerably large and a pain to pack away.
Verdict: This wheel provides added realism but using it is a lot of work! It's a shame Mad Catz chose to wind this thing so tight, because it looks very stylish and seems well-constructed. Buy this controller if you want, but first make sure you have a deep closet!
Wins Award for: Most likely to be found at a Goodwill.
Find Mad Catz Dreamcast Racing Wheel on eBay, Amazon
I must have been going through a Gran Turismo phase when I picked up this controller, as it's almost exclusively designed for Gran Turismo 3. Its main steering wheel component comes in three pieces, allowing it to be packed into a relatively small box. Assembly only takes a minute, and when done, it's designed to be held between your legs. It works okay but keeping this thing stable will give your thighs a workout. The pedals feel a bit soft; you couldn't rest your foot on them without pushing it down part-way.
In addition to having to assemble the wheel, there are a lot of long wires to untangle. One is for power. One is for connecting the pedals to the steering wheel. Lastly, there's a USB wire to plug the wheel into your PS2.
Using this controller is kind of a surreal experience. As GT3 is booting the steering wheel begins moving on its own accord, as if it were possessed by the devil. Once you begin racing, the feel of this wheel is like no other. Turning the wheel feels "bumpy", and it has a way of fighting you around curves. Is this what real racing feels like?
Next I tried a few other PS2 racing games. Ridge Racer V? Didn't work. Midnight Club? No dice. After doing some research I discovered only select racing games support the wheel - mainly Nascar and F1 titles. I did however find one other game in my collection that worked: Starsky and Hutch! Incidentally, the whole wrestle-with-the-wheel thing was a perfect match for this game's gritty style and chaotic car chases.
Verdict: I'm pretty sure there's a small gremlin living inside of this controller. Does the force feedback provide the most realistic control? Maybe, but after a while I began to wonder if I really want realistic control. Then again, if you're a true racing enthusiast, the answer is probably yes.
Wins Award for: Most Likely to house a small, violent creature.
Find Logitech Driving Force on eBay, Amazon
Well it does add some heft. Other third-party games like Monster Trucks and GT included their own versions of the Wii Wheel, molded in black. They feel cheaper and rougher, but also lighter.
I went back and played a few Wii racing games to get reacquainted with the Wii Wheel, and I have to admit it makes playing Mario Kart Wii a wee bit sweeter. You can make fine steering adjustments with ease, effortlessly weaving through traffic. Next up I tried Excite Truck, one of my all-time favorite Wii titles. The wheel was less of a factor in this game, as it is less about precision driving and more about extreme maneuvers.
Does using the wheel affect the accuracy of steering? Well rotating a wheel-shaped object feels more natural than tilting a rectangle, so it's possible it may help slightly. For the most part however I think we can agree this was a gimmick on Nintendo's part - a very clever and lucrative gimmick.
When Wii mania was in full stride (circa 2008) it seems like everybody had one or more of these. It was short-lived however, and partly undermined by Nintendo with their introduction of the Wiimote-plus attachment in 2009.
Verdict: I never knew I needed one of these. And I'm still not so sure I do!
Wins award for: Most Likely to end up in a drawer somewhere.
ConclusionSo what do I learn by sifting through all of these driving controllers? Well, I think I like the idea of steering wheels more than the wheels themselves. They can be aggravating to set up, a pain to find compatible games, and a hassle to store. When it doubt, I would hold off. However, you are hooked on one particular driving game and want to take the overall experience to the next level, a decent driving controller might just get you there. I'd say sleep on it first!
- The Video Game Critic