Genetic screens for recessive, maternal-effect, embryonic-lethal mutations have identified about 25 genes that control early steps of pattern formation in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. These maternal genes are discussed as belonging to one of three groups. The par group genes establish and maintain polarity in the one-cell zygote in response to sperm entry, defining an anterior/posterior body axis at least in part through interactions with the cyto-skeleton mediated by cortically localized proteins. Blastomere identity group genes act down-stream of the par group to specify the identities of individual embryonic cells, or blastomeres, using both cell autonomous and non-cell autonomous mechanisms. Requirements for the blastomere identity genes are consistent with previous studies suggesting that early asymmetric cleavages in the C. elegans embryo generate six "founder" cells that account for much of the C. elegans body plan. Intermediate group genes, most recently identified, may link the establishment of polarity in the zygote by par group genes to the localization of blastomere identity group gene functions. This review summarizes the known requirements for the members of each group, although it seems clear that additional regulatory genes controlling pattern formation in the early embryo have yet to be identified. An emerging challenge is to link the function of the genes in these three groups into interacting pathways that can account for the specification of the six founder cell identities in the early embryo, five of which produce somatic cell types and one of which produces the germline.