First off, and the progenitor of them all, Phantasy Star Online. This first was released on the Dreamcast in 2000, with the sequel Episode 2 released shortly after. It moved over to the Gamecube in 2002 as a bundled edition of the first two games called PSO episode 1 and 2, and for the longest time was the only console MMO, as well as the only online Gamecube game.
PSO is a mixed bag. It was incredibly addicting. Milkman in his EGM review of it mentions he unplugged his fridge rather than stop. However saving data offline in the VMU led to insane hacking and gamesharking enabled people to delete your characters. The game’s economies were ruined by duplicating items as well. Still, the overall design and aesthetics beat many current MMOs even in player fun, with some of the most memorable bosses in any game.
Everquest Online Adventures was next, coming out in Febuary 2003. This game was the first true MMO in the states, a console version of the original EQ designed by SOE and released on the PS2. It was unique in that it didn’t need a hard drive. All the data was loaded from the DVD with a small memory card file for updates. However, this game was notorious for killing your PS2 due to the tremendous amount of disc access. It released an expansion, EQOA frontiers, later in the year.
This game was actually very good. It was a fusion of classic EQ and a more simplified, streamlined one. While the graphics were poor, approaching basic PSone quality, the world was vast and deep. In many ways it was superior than the next game listed. As far as I know EQOA still is active today, but is lucky to have 10k subscribers. SOE’s station pass still subsidizes it, but the game is impossible to find.
SOE released an action RPG called Champions of Norrath in 2004. It was similar to both Baldur’s Gate and PSO, and did well enough to get a sequel in 2005. Both were for the PS2, and both are borderline MMOs, being more instanced diablo clones.
Also in 2004 was a little known game that would eventually build an empire in Japan. Monster Hunter is a PSO-style game where you kill gigantic dinosaurs to harvest materials to build your character up over time. While the PS2 launch here was very niche, it spawned 2 more sequels in japan and is probably the only reason the PSP survived there at all. It has a rep for deep, hardcore grinding play. Currently a Wii version is planned.
Next is the big hitter, Final Fantasy XI. While technically it predates EQOA, its console release date in the US was 2004. FFXI was bundled in with the PS2 harddrive, enabling a much deeper world and better focus on graphics and gameplay. It also for the longest time was extremely popular, its combined playerbase topping 500k, which beats current games like LOTR and EVE.
FFXI had a lot of problems though. The Japanese version released first by 2 years, and the PC version by 1. So that means PS2 players were coming into a 2 year old game. PC players also used bots and third party apps to gain advantages console players couldn’t replicate, and always accused the PS2 console roots of holding the game back. However, this game has been the benchmark for console success. It had 3 expansions-Chains of Promathia, Tales of Aht Urghan, and Wings of the Goddess, as well as 3 micro-expansions.
In 2005 SE also released another MMO based on its mech series, Front Mission Online. This lasted 3 years, but was never released in the states. Another Japan-only release in 2005 was .hack//fragment, an online version of the .hack series of RPGS, which were ironically about replicating a MMO. Both games I never played, both were on PS2
Phantasy Star Universe was next, released in 2006 for both the PS2 and 360. I have fond memories of the 360 beta, which was packed to overflowing, and for a time it looked like this would be the big thing. However some poor design decisions and restricted content at launch wore player enthusiasm out. An expansion was released, ambition of the illuminatus. This is notable in that for the 360, it was the first console expansion released purely digitally. While FFXI did so later, the expansions were little more than a quest line and rewards.
An honorable mention goes to both Phantasy Star Zero and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles for the Nintendo DS. Both are technically MMOS in design, but Nintendo requiring friend codes makes them not true ones. Also, True Fantasy Online for the Xbox deserves a mention for being canceled, despite being in an advanced state of completion.