Grand Theft Auto III on the iPad feels unreal to this gamer

Grand Theft Auto III, the 10 Year Anniversary edition, officially hit the iOS App Store(s aapl) and Android Market(s goog) late Wednesday. It will only run on relatively recent devices, but even so, it’s an experience that truly shows just how far mobile gaming has come.

I’ve been playing GTA III on my iPad 2, and it’s been pretty much a completely positive, totally nostalgic experience so far. The sights and sounds of the Rockstar open-world crime game immediately take me back to my days playing it on the PS2 back at the beginning of college, but in fact it actually improves on that original experience, at least in terms of graphics; the iPad version is sharper than its console predecessor.

One area where you would think GTA III would falter on mobile devices is in terms of controls: On-screen buttons do the job of a controller on the iPhone and iPad. But surprisingly, Rockstar has done a good job of minimizing the absence of physical d-pads, joysticks and buttons. On-screen controls are clearly explained in the interactive walk through at the beginning of the game, and begin to feel natural quite quickly — especially when you realize you’re playing one of the most influential open-world titles in video gaming history on a tablet or smartphone.

In fact, it’s one of the most impressive games out there available on the iPad, whether or not you’ve played the original. And it’s yet another warning shot for the console and PC gaming industry, which was already losing ground to mobile devices before top-tier games from just one console generation ago were being ported, in their full, undiluted glory to phones. OnLive is another way that console-quality games are making their way to mobile devices, with an iPad app set to be released soon.

GTA III even plays amazingly well from the iPad on the big screen, either via Apple Digital AV Adapter and an HDMI cable, or using AirPlay Mirroring and an Apple TV. I tested both solutions, and found each to be thoroughly playable, although the wireless connection might’ve had just a tiny touch of lag and slightly inferior video fidelity.

With new, more powerful iterations emerging on an annual basis, mobile devices could potentially match and exceed the power of consoles relatively quickly, and video-out capabilities combined with greater compatibility with external accessories could narrow other gaps between the two types of gaming platform.

Playing GTA III on my iPad today feels like a surreal experience, in no small part because it wasn’t too long ago when I was marvelling at it as a cutting edge example of what the most powerful home console in the world could accomplish. But what’s even more surreal is that for gamers who were too young to play it the first time around, this probably just feels normal.